In some ways, Cha'ves Jamall, a rising artist in Bushwick, is just like every other queer Black person I love and know.
Because of our brushes with a society that simply won't let us be — one that often demands we compartmentalize the trauma resulting from oppression and marginalization — we live in a perpetual state of duality. We play respectability politics on accident, and on purpose for survival. And we only dare to express ourselves when said expression can be consumed by the white world as a shiny package wrapped by a candy-coated bow. This can lend itself to a particular kind of brilliance and knowing about the world's machinations that only other Black queers can understand.
In other words, the phenomenon of the oppressed commodifying their trauma for the mainstream can otherwise be known as pop culture, America's largest export, according to Jamall. It can be hard, when doing this, to know where you live, and where you belong, but most of all, how to say what needs to be said at the time your voice is most needed.
I totally get all of the above, because I've lived it. Jamall, in his first-ever solo exhibition, entitled "Queen Black America" takes an unapologetically visible approach to the intersectional nuances inherent in blackness and queerness in modern American society. It's part multidisplinary work with a high pop culture IQ, and part autobiographical installation. Furthermore, it acutely explores the very fine (like almost invisibly fine) line of dancing between artist-as-person and artist-as-character and it intentionally examines how such a dance impacts long-term mental health.
Jamall shares "Invoice" exclusively with PAPER to tease his new show — a politically motivated collaboration with Mexican artist Chuck's Brothel — which launches this Friday, May 11 at Ghost Gallery in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Check that out below, and read on as Jamall discusses the impact of pop culture on society, the emotional labor of self-affirmation, and the plight of Kanye West.
From one Black artist to another: you better work. What I found striking was the Black body in its raw form juxtaposed with images of historically stereotyped images of Black art, bodies, etc, whether it's a "shuck-and-jive" dance or old racist cartoons depicting Black people eating watermelon. What were you hoping to convey by mixing those images?
I think in general with this project, "Queen Black America" — "queen" implying "queer" and Black America — it's about intersectionality. As I've been having important conversations with several people, most of my white friends, I've realized that they've been socialized to not see us with the same nuance we truly have. Some of the cartoons are not even 100 years old, but these are the sorts of things [white] people have been teaching their children about what blackness is: they're lazy, they're only here for entertainment, they have big lips and big eyes, they're this or they're that. A lot of the project was born from me struggling with my own mental health, and acknowledging that within myself and I wanted to be able to show a nuanced capsule of my experience in dealing with what has been projected on my Black body, and dealing with how everyone has perceived me, Black and white, and what types of challenges I experience internally. So it felt important for me to create a visual piece that shows this.
What happens, too, is that when white people devalue Black narratives or place them in stereotyped boxes and labels, it's a form of erasure. It seems that in order to be seen as fully realized humans, a Black body has to be stripped down; to be shown in its rawest form.
And it's also about kind of playing into some of those narratives. The reason why I started animated a musical pop project is because pop as politics is a real thing and I felt like, to even talk about my experience and my trauma, I had to create something that was consumable, that spoke to a truth, but sort of shucked and jived a bit.
Because it's somehow "not enough" to say exactly what you want to say, as you want to say it. Does that come from not only how we've grown up, but also with technology and ideas of what a pop product should be? If an image "has to be" polished, that seems truer for Black people than for anyone else.
100 percent. America's major export is pop culture; is content. So we're so conditioned and groomed to communicate difficult ideas in bite sizes, in a way that's delicious and digestible. And that's packed into the history of this country. And we don't acknowledge that. If we are talking about pop as politics, there are people like Michael Jackson or Kanye who — Michael was going through it the last half of career: completely destroying his face, the way he was interacting with the world was excused, but instead we ridiculed him and expected a new single.
Always! That's still part of pop culture, part of American culture. It's what we give the rest of the world, and we don't recognize the influence it has on other cultures in our own society. Part of "Queen Black America," it's part of the tradition and nuance of this, but I want to chat more about how this fucking huge loud voice affects other people. Because for example, any Black and brown community around the world, skin bleaching is an aspect of many cultures that is a direct result of our number one exports.
You said most of this project came from dealing with mental health concerns. You also mentioned to me before this conversation that some of this included navigating socioeconomic troubles. Tell me about the process of still needing to create something despite what you went through. And how was pop culture affecting your work at the time?
When I first started the project unintentionally, I didn't realize I was doing anything, it was during the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I was living in Harlem, and I was dating someone and realizing that I, while depressed, was trying to explore what worked around it. I felt so motionless. As an artist, there are so many things I want to contribute to, in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, in terms of gender politics, I truly felt like I wanted to be part of them as they were emerging in these modern iterations. But I felt so motionless. I didn't know how to contribute, but I knew I needed to see myself; to remember myself. I took portraits of myself and things around me, and it wasn't for Instagram or anything. It was just to remind myself that I existed.
I feel that. That's so heavy.
It is, and being in a relationship, too, it was interesting that someone was present to bear witness to this space I was in. You can deny it, you can shortcut yourself with drugs, sex, or whatever you want to not see yourself. But a relationship holds a magnifying glass up to you. It was then that I was really confronted [with what was going on with me].
What happened after that?
I moved to Paris. I was so exhausted with New York. I was really questioning whether people wanted to know me, or were more interested in my persona. I realized I was clever and funny and people liked me. But I didn't know if people just liked me for the show, or if they were truly interested in knowing me. I don't come from means, but I worked an event job and I moved to Paris. That was one of the best things I ever did. I took these photos, I wrote some poems, and those eventually became the music project I have now. All of what I created then validate for me now that time in my life. As if to say: "listen, Cha'ves, even though you felt that way, you can make something from it. That person matters." We live in a culture where happiness is placed on a pedestal. It's a VIP emotion. I said, you know what, fuck that. I was going through and I am going through. I felt like I needed to place happiness where sadness is reserved and vice versa, as a way to validate my experience.
You know, because it's us. I really wanted us — Black queer people — to be seen.
When it comes to talking about how to move culture and society forward, there is an increased focus on visibility and representation. If you have a highly curated art show meaning to capture diverse experiences and they have one Black artist and everyone is white, it's more obvious now than ever to everyone who is paying attention. Is this a battle you feel like you have to wage? Or does your art wage that battle for you?
To be asked about my work in this way lifts my spirits enough to keep me pressing forward. Do I feel like the art world sees me? It's been an uphill battle to be seen how I want to be seen. Here's an analogy: If you imagine a gnat on the surface of the water and the wings are pressed against the water and it's facing up the sky, and it's very aware of the sky — its freedom, openness, potential, the great heights, expansiveness. But also underneath the surface [of the water the gnat is pressed against], is a world that's much deeper than it is. So I've realized that I could be drowning. I could be deeper than I am. As a Black person who came from nothing, I could be in a worse position. But that doesn't negate the fact that I am aware of the sky. I see everything else — all of it. Another example: let's say we have a Black gay kid from the South Side of Chicago who feels stuck and marginalized — if they even had a taste of what I've been given because of my own privilege — they'd be able to do so much, see so much, realize and know that they are so much more than they could ever understand. It would exceed me. I'm always thinking about the depths below. And I'm often upset about the world missing out on us and our amazingness. I'm sure you often realize that playing the one-foot-in and one-foot-out duality has left you really aware, but there's a brilliance to it that only we can understand. I'm trying to show in my work that you are allowed to justify and see yourself. The things that have been prescribed to us as happiness, like commerce, tennis shoes, material items, sex, sports, we are allowed to be more than that. We deserve to be more than that.
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One more thing: do you have thoughts on everything going on with Kanye, based on what you've been saying about packaging trauma and how it's shown up in your art? Is there a connection there for you?
Being placed on that sort of pedestal, as I was saying with Michael Jackson, isn't necessarily the best thing for one's mental health. It challenges and ultimately changes our perception of self in a way that is disruptive to healthy actions and healthy manifestations of self. Kanye has genuinely tried to be honest about his experiences on one hand: when he said George Bush didn't care about Black people — he meant that shit! But right now, who is he? He's getting lost in commerce and seeing himself as a pop product, and as a Black person, and as so many things to so many people. When that's the case, it's probably hard to be clear on where you live and where you stand. You see that with Azealia Banks, who got a taste of celebrity from one viral hit, and had a hard time adjusting and recognizing herself. This shit is real! I'm in prayer for him and his ability to see himself clearly in this machine. Pop culture and the way it affects mental health is a real thing. I can understand that, and I'm not even a celebrity.