Art

An Artist Builds His Vision of Black Prosperity

Azikiwe Mohammed’s kitschy, immersive installation presents weighty themes of Black identity.

Blackest Night: Survey in Blackness by Azikiwe Mohammed, installation view (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAVANNAH, Georgia — “Greetings from New Davonhaime,” declares a postcard featuring three oversize slices of cheese pizza floating in a galaxy of sparkles, darkly overlaid across a faint background of checkered picnic blanket in a grassy, tree-lined field. The card is one of an assortment available for visitors to Blackest Night: A Survey in Blackness by Azikiwe Mohammed — a solo show at the SCAD Museum of Art, part of the Savannah College of Art & Design.

“Greetings from New Davonhaime,” repeats another, with the location in the knockout “large-letter” style of vintage postcards, identifying the place as the “Land of Realness.” Realness, in this case, is paradoxical, of course, because New Davonhaime is not a real place at all, but a kind of mind-place, transposing aspects of Mohammed’s personal experience and broader Black identity into small, digestible attractions, reminiscent of the different-but-interconnected “lands” of a themed amusement park. The name New Davonhaime is a linguistic mashup of the five American cities with the highest density of African-American residents in the United Staes: New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Savannah, Georgia. The postcard kiosk is stationed in an area designated as Jimmy’s Thrift of New Davonhaime, according to the business cards on the desk (whose website, jimmysthrift.com, reroutes to Mohammed’s artist website). This venue ostensibly sells kitschy found and artist-altered items on its shelves and was manned by Jimmy himself (Mohammed) through the opening week of the exhibition. In addition to proprietor and premiere New Davonhaimian historian, Jimmy maintains oral histories, poems, and stories tied to the objects on display, and those of wider New Davonhaime.

Jimmy’s Thrift of New Davonhaime, installation view

The center of this world, which includes a arching footbridge over virtual water beneath a projected sunset, a picnic-like setting on false grass underneath an artificial tree and the careful watch of a soft-sculpture video-faced grandma-figure in a camp chair, an entryway lined with a large-scale story-quilt and painted mirrors, and a hall of portraits, is a clear plexiglass family dinner table, with its occupants and contents rendered in astonishingly complex and kinetic neon. A purple father-figure in a hat, a green mother with a vaguely modish haircut, and scrawly orange child with a looping approximation of an afro blink in and out of silent conversation — forks rising and falling in a loop, the contents of their plates lighting up and blinking out. It is a perfect blend of commercial and domestic imagery — the American dream family dinner we have been sold, decade after decade, only to have each family discover the challenges to achieving this abstracted idea of togetherness, plenty, and infinite supply.

Aiyana Jones (left) and Sandra Bland, editions from Mohammed’s ongoing airbrushed t-shirt series, Remember Us
Painted and quilted works by Mohammed, installation view

Mohammed’s media are multitudinous, from the props and sets of the various worlds to more conventional paintings and photographs, quilts, neon, airbrush t-shirts, soft sculpture, video, and audio works. Just as his mechanisms are diffuse, his subject matter drifts between the general — for example, selections from a series of airbrushed t-shirts memorializing Black women and girls killed by police, including Sandra Bland and Aiyana Jones — and the personal, such as his photographic portraits, audio compilations, and video works. The movement between the specificity of his paintings, and the abstraction of media like mirrors, neon, and quilts create a sophisticated and dreamy immersive environment.

Blackest Night: Survey in Blackness, installation view
Entryway to New Davonhaime, installation view

In an afterward to her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison describes an effort to create what she calls a “race-specific yet race-free prose.” Though Mohammed’s materials do not specifically cite The Bluest Eye, something about the phrasing of his title, The Blackest Night, suggests the reference. It is useful to think about this exhibition as an intermedia exploration of race-specific yet race-free installation art. Though Mohammed’s subjects are universally Black, and tap signifiers and icons specific to that community, the overall effect is visiting a place of imagination. French people dream in French; colorblind people dream in shades of gray; and Mohammed dreams in Black. More than that — he builds his dreams around the viewer, and invites them to send a postcard back to wherever they come from, or forward to him in the future.

A postcard from New Davonhaime

Azikiwe Mohammed’s Blackest Night: A Survey in Blackness continues at SCAD Museum of Art (601 Turner Blvd, Savannah, GA) through August 31.

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