Still from Zachary Fabri, "The Big Payback" (2009), 1:58, single channel video (all images courtesy of the artist unless indicated otherwise)

Still from Zachary Fabri, “The Big Payback” (2009), 1:58, single channel video (all images courtesy of the artist)

NEWARK — You walk by the black man in an oversized white T-shirt and baggy dark jeans, dancing to James Brown’s “The Big Payback,” strutting, hands on his hips, letting his backbone slowly slip side to side. Then — bam — hip thrust to your face. You can’t help but notice he’s a good dancer. Then you notice there is another man dancing close by, dressed similarly, but he is skinnier, has close-cropped hair, and his movements involve his arms moving in front of his torso and then around his back in time with the music. This man jumps and skips, shouts out phrases from the song, speaking to everyone and no one, and occupying the middle of the block so walkers have to eddy around him.

Watching both of these men dance — especially the first, with his loose braids falling into his face and his powerful hip thrusts skillfully timed to the beat, his crotch suggestively offered to any watcher — I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for him and for some ridiculous reason for myself too. I have walked past these men more times than I wanted to. However, this time I witness the performance on a monitor at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, in the video “The Big Payback” (2009) as part of Zachary Fabri’s solo exhibition, From the Wolf to the Fox. Words appear on the screen one after the other in large, sans serif letters: “Buy Black People,” “Free My People,” and “Free Black People,” all terms that shift their meanings depending on the particular intonation given when delivered. And I want to ask which of us are not free, and what would my freedom, Fabri’s, or freedom for the dancing men look like?

Zachary Fabri, from Aureola (Black Presidents) (2012), digital C-prints, one of a set of 9

Right next to “The Big Payback” is a grid of color photos, each 20 by 30 inches, and each of a black actor playing the role of the US President. There’s Morgan Freeman, Sammy Davis Jr., Chris Rock, Dennis Haysbert, and even Richard Pryor in the series, Aerola (Black Presidents) (2012). Most are dressed in suits and look presidential, but their faces are obscured by the glare cast by a light shone into the camera’s eye. The men are mythically beautiful, partly because their characters were created at times when the notion of a black president was still very much a dream. Taken together these photos and the video of the dancers make up a portrait — not of black men, but of the artist’s anxiety, curiosity, and conscious effort to mine the culture around him for images and postures he can use to imagine being for himself. Getting to a sense of what might authentically be is such a tough row to hoe.

Zachary Fabri, "Red Handed" (2010), digital C-print

Zachary Fabri, “Red Handed” (2010), digital C-print

The work in From the Wolf to the Fox falls into two categories. Many pieces are Fabri’s phenomenological explorations of his body encountering other objects and negotiating space with them; for example, in his piece “Red Handed (2010) he wanders like a pilgrim through a landscape he discovers by walking and accumulating its dirt on his white clothes and shoes. The other set of works here are studies in conscious deliberation on what it is to be a black man, always performing, even when one doesn’t intend to perform, because if there is a viewer, even another black person, we are back under the klieg lights.

As Fabri has said, “My themes and ideas stem from personal experience living as a Black person in the USA and from the community that I live in,” and that his work is, “an exploration of my personal life, local community, and the systems of oppression inherent.” His exploration by way of this confluence of images is subtle, concerned with the cultural and social performance of black masculinity.

When considered in tandem with the marquee on the Aljira’s exterior, one might understand why I felt and feel that the dancing men are somehow representative of me. The sign reads, in huge vinyl letters: “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered.” In short, the movement of people of color is being politically considered, always considered, watched and assessed, even when we publicly move in exuberance and joy. We are a social grouping whose fates largely hang together, so the performance of black people is meaningful and therefore fascinating to me, but more importantly to Fabri. His intuitive response is to let the images glow in all their shifting, particular tones, including those of pride, fear, guilt, and blazing esteem — and to imagine that he must stay ahead of these images and ideas that are proliferating around him constantly. So Fabri, by way of these men, keeps dancing, always dancing.

Installation view of the front Aljira with the works "lorem ipsum Martin Delany 1877," "lorem ipsum Martin Delany 1852," and "lorem ipsum Edward Wilmont Blyden 1887," (all 2012)

Installation view of the front Aljira with the works “lorem ipsum Martin Delany 1877,” “lorem ipsum Martin Delany 1852,” and “lorem ipsum Edward Wilmont Blyden 1887,” (all 2012)

Zachary Fabri’s From the Wolf to the Fox continues at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art (591 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey) until January 15.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...