Last Thursday, April 28, just before 11am, a group of museum-goers lined up along Grand Avenue outside of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), waiting for it to open. Behind them on the building’s facade, another line-up — resplendent and monumental — echoed the phalanx of visitors. A parade of Black, uniformed drum majors and majorettes strides rhythmically across the wall against brightly colored and patterned backgrounds.
Derek Fordjour’s mural for MOCA, “Sonic Boom” (2022), features reproductions of five paintings by the New York-based artist, blown-up and printed on vinyl wrap to cover more than 5,400 square feet of the museum’s entrance wall. The work celebrates the marching bands of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), taking its name from one of Jackson State University’s famous ensembles, nicknamed the “Sonic Boom of the South.”
This is the first in MOCA’s Building Art series, which will feature artworks on the facades of both MOCA locations — Grand Avenue and the nearby Geffen Contemporary — potentially including video and installation, according to a museum spokesperson. In accordance with the sustainability mission of MOCA’s Environmental Council, launched in 2020, the vinyl wrap was printed in the US with aqueous inks and will be shredded and reused in future works by Fordjour after deinstallation.
When viewed up close, the magnified work fragments into a lively array of colors and shapes. But seen from across the wide street, its dancing bodies come to life. For Fordjour, the project offered an opportunity to connect with new audiences.
“We live in a world where it’s still true that, for lots of people, an afternoon in the museum is not their first option. I’m interested in reaching people who might not otherwise consider going inside a museum,” Fordjour told Hyperallergic. “It’s also a wonderful way to activate a painting, to make a painting an invitation.”
Fordjour took this democratic approach to art when selecting the works to reproduce for the project. He sent a survey to all museum employees — including curatorial, education, and janitorial — asking them to pick from among four options.
“I wanted the work they chose collectively to be reflective of where they believed the museum needs to be in terms of outward facing messaging,” Fordjour said. Their choice reflects “a collective desire to have something upbeat and hopeful” after two years of living through a pandemic.
The installation of “Sonic Boom” coincides with Fordjour’s first solo show at LA’s David Kordansky Gallery, titled Magic, Mystery, & Legerdemain. Through his signature collaged paintings, sculpture, and performance, Fordjour channels the theme of magic to examine moments from African-American — and African diasporic — history. The exhibition’s highlights include a daily magic show performed by Kenrick Ice McDonald that reimagines the role of Black Herman, one of the first prominent African-American magicians.
Fordjour’s images of HBCU marching bands, reads a text on MOCA’s website, “symbolize the daily performance of Blackness itself.”
“Embedded there is cultural coding that will have particular resonance in communities of color,” Fordjour said.
Last Thursday morning, Ernest McCray, an alumnus Howard University, an HBCU, was excitedly taking pictures of the facade from across the street.
“I really appreciate this. It holds near and dear to me,” he told Hyperallergic. “The fact that it’s so prominently displayed downtown, on an arts building, it says we’re making progress.”
As much as “Sonic Boom” holds a specific significance for those familiar with the traditions it depicts, Fordjour is also interested in how his works can cross boundaries, appealing to a range of spectators.
“Painting can be multiple things at the same time,” the artist said, noting that viewers can connect with the “regalia and pageantry, the syncopation, separate from cultural context.” He mentions that the Florida A&M Marching Band performed during the 2019 Rose Bowl, incorporating a predominantly Southern Black tradition within an Angeleno institution. “This is a way to bring together many different publics. That’s what excites me most.”