In conjunction with the University of Virginia’s celebration of Black History Month, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville is presenting its inaugural exhibition, which will run through March 24.
“Civic Meditations” consists of three video installations by Jefferson Pinder, an acclaimed Washington, D.C.-based video artist: “Passive/Resistance” (2008), on view now through through Friday; “Afro Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise)” (2008), which will be on view Saturday through March 1; and “Elevator Music” (2012), which will be on view March 2 through 24.
On Feb. 8, at a well-attended lecture in the Heritage Center Auditorium, Pinder shared the narrative of his artistic career with insightful anecdotes and powerful imagery.
Andrea Douglas, curator of the exhibit and executive director of the center, moderated the presentation, which was its inaugural event.
Pinder’s experimental videos explore black identity through minimal performances that reference pop culture, physical theater and African-American history.
Inspired by the connection between music and the moving image, Pinder’s work provides personal and social commentary utilizing hypnotic rhythms and surreal performances to underscore themes dealing with blackness.
“Afro Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise)” is an escapist video reflection on Cold War space travel featuring NASA color footage, underscored by a speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and American jazz poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” as the soundtrack.
In the video, the protagonist in a white-faced, Butoh-inspired performance plummets back to Earth after a mystical space journey – an Icarus metaphor for the civil rights legacy. Utilizing time-lapse animation, “White Noise” consists of more than 2,000 photographs, each frame an individual pose that cumulatively forms a continuous narrative flow.
Inherent in this work is the idea of space, Pinder said, where as a youth he imagined all things could happen. As with all of Pinder’s work, “White Noise” contains a prominent biographical element – the Saturday afternoons he would spend as a boy with his family watching the televised groove of “Soul Train,” followed by “Star Trek.”
Regarding “White Noise,” Pinder reminded the audience about the role of Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek,” one of the first black women featured in a major television series. As Uhura, Nichols famously kissed white actor William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk in a November 1968 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren.”
This episode, Pinder observed, is often cited as the first example of an interracial kiss on United States television and a groundbreaking moment in television history. For Pinder, it represented the idealized fantasy of space as a place where anything could happen.
A member of the MTV generation, Pinder discussed how he witnessed firsthand a video revolution that changed the way people looked at culture. “I spent my youth watching music videos on Friday night,” Pinder said. “I instinctively connected music with the moving image.
“There is a wonderful sense that music has to nostalgia, a feeling of a particular time, place and personal relationships. Music has allowed me to creep into that space – it’s kind of like the heartbeat of most of my work.”
The first installation of the center’s Pinder exhibit is “Passive/Resistance,” evoking Gandhi and King’s social doctrines of nonviolent action.
The controversial video shows a physical exchange that demonstrates the essence of the passive-resistance techniques used in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, as fellow artist, Matt Ravensthal, a white man, repeatedly slaps Pinder. As Pinder endures the brutality and the confrontation intensifies, the viewer, by the video’s end, becomes aware of a voyeuristic complicity.
“Elevator Music,” the third installation of “Jefferson Pinder: Civic Meditations,” depicts a comical examination of the common experience of riding an elevator with a stranger in silence, as composer Dave Grusin’s “Sun Porch Cha Cha” on the soundtrack tempers anxieties often experienced in close quarters.
The video’s title takes its name from the unobtrusive – sometimes catchy, sometimes annoying – melodies often heard in small and large public spaces.
In this confined environment, Pinder’s figure stares directly at the viewer; the viewer, in turn, stares back at the figure, blurring the distinction of who is a fellow passenger in which elevator.
At the lecture, Pinder described his current art project. To mark the anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Pinder is working with two choirs – one bluegrass, the other gospel – in a once-segregated Birmingham theater, the Lyric.
The black singers will be situated in the balcony, while the bluegrass ensemble will be in the orchestra pit. The audience will be present on the stage to witness the event.
“The groups will be working together in two different spaces with two different genres of music that exemplify a connectivity – in essence, recreating a phenomena that is representative of an American experience,” Pinder said.
Pinder received his master of fine arts degree in painting and mixed media and bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Maryland, College Park. His work has been featured at the Studio Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, High Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Wadsworth Athenaeum, among others. Pinder is currently an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago.