Black Montage: The Video Art of Ulysses Jenkins
This article appeared in the March 31, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Two-Zone Transfer (Ulysses Jenkins, 1979)
The quicksilver works of multidisciplinary video and performance artist Ulysses Jenkins indict the escapist and stultifying effects of mainstream mass media while provoking perceptual dislocations to dispel its smokescreens. Deployed across multiple mediums, and situated between the ephemerality of live performance and the endurance of digital art, Jenkins’s prolific oeuvre mounts a sharp analysis of the collusion of media technologies, dominant representational norms, and anti-Blackness.
A former student of Charles White and Betye Saar, and swirling in a collaborative orbit with Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger, the Los Angeles–based Jenkins is a polymorphic figure. His groundbreaking practice has, in recent months, garnered renewed and long-overdue interest: the first major retrospective of his work—spanning video, painting, photography, and performance—is currently on view at the Hammer Museum in L.A., and 12 of his films debuted on the Criterion Channel in February. Spanning the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, the Criterion series offers a generous overview of Jenkins’s disruptive moving-image bricolage. While they are impossible to summarize in any cohesive way, his videos bring together performance art, green-screen work, found footage, news clips, and a breadth of sonic material to generate an unruly digital cosmos.
There is one stylistic outlier in this largely hybrid, experimental lineup: the documentary Remnants of the Watts Festival (1980). While formally conventional, with talking heads and vérité-style footage, the film functions as a radical counter-history to the media’s framing of the annual Watts Festival—a Black community remembrance of the 1965 Watts Rebellion—using the language of criminality and gang activity. The documentary addresses the long-standing problems, including police brutality and discriminatory housing policies, that sparked the 1965 uprising, and also delves into the ongoing issues of militarism, political education, the exclusion of Black artists from the art world, and the commodification of Black culture. In one clip, artist Julian Williams uses the term “Black montage” to describe a collage of figures ranging from Phillis Wheatley to Malcolm X, which the painter has paired with a booklet of background information about each personage. “Not only is it a beautiful picture, it’s also an educational piece,” says Williams, offering a frame for understanding not only his own work but also Jenkins’s process at large.
The “Black montage” at play in the video artist’s work is a form of calculated anarchy, yielding pieces that are both generative and critically unresolved. It can be thought of as a form of didactic composition that collides oppositional Black art with a critique of hegemonic visual forms. The multivalent nature of Jenkins’s “Black montage” is grounded in his beginnings as a student of painting at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was while he was painting a mural on the Venice Beach boardwalk that a friend encouraged him to attend a video workshop, facilitating his introduction to the Portapak camera. The mobility and low cost of this new video technology were powerful draws for an artist emphatically uninterested in either censoring his visions or adapting them to material limitations. Tellingly, Jenkins has cited as an early inspiration Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song—an explosive exercise toward Black cultural liberation not only in terms of its aesthetics and narrative, but also its independent production.
Although it was completed in 1978, Jenkins began Mass of Images as an artist’s statement in 1970, before enrolling at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles for an MFA in intermedia, video, and performance art. The film opens with the image of Jenkins himself, adorned in an American flag scarf, his gaze doubly distanced by a plastic visor and dark sunglasses. He rises from behind a stack of defunct TVs, disappears behind them again, and then emerges in a wheelchair, holding a sledgehammer. The video is anchored by an emphatic, rhythmic refrain: “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know, from years and years of TV shows. The hurting thing, the hidden pain, was written and bitten into your vein. I won’t and I don’t relate, but I think for some it’s too late!”
A diagnosis, an accusation, and a warning, this litany frames the video’s historical overview of anti-Black representation, comprising still inserts of vaudeville performer Bert Williams, Laurel and Hardy in blackface, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, and scenes from The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer. Like a lone prophet, Jenkins presents a Stuart Hall–esque analysis of how identities are always constituted within representation. Toward the end of the video, he seems on the cusp of using the sledgehammer against the TVs—the symbolic carriers of white-supremacist visuality—before stopping himself with a muttered “But they won’t let me.” This interrupted destructive impulse, while frustrating, is a lesson in the limited mobility available to Black people and artists within the parameters of mainstream culture.
The oneiric Two-Zone Transfer (1979) is bookended by scenes of Jenkins boarding and disembarking from a bus—the “transfer” of the title—and of him falling asleep and waking from a dream. In between, the video extends the artist’s meditation on the ways in which Black people are both corralled into and omitted from Western representational forms. Jenkins is seen tossing and turning in bed, in dialogue with himself; his dream avatar says, “You know why you can’t sleep. It’s the same old problem every Black person who has ever lived in this country has had.” His sleeping self responds, “You mean the misunderstandings I encounter are the same old basic image problems?” Then, in a smoky room cast in a putrid yellow light, Jenkins appears standing in front of three men seated on a couch wearing plastic masks in the likenesses of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, messily stained with shoe polish—DIY blackface. Invoking the figure of the minstrel, the three pseudo-presidents explain to the artist how racial hierarchies are solidified through the narrative symbols of movies and TV. The video functions as a study of what Jenkins calls a “history of visual misinterpretation” of Blackness, drawing on and ironizing hegemonic norms even as it opens up possible alternatives. The rest of the hallucinatory video offers up Black expressivity as an antidote to anti-Black misrepresentations: Jenkins appears first as a preacher, delivering a sermon, and then as James Brown, giving an ecstatic musical performance.
Two years later, Jenkins made Inconsequential Doggereal (1981), whose capricious Dadaist elements are delivered through glitches, stutters, rewinds, pauses, and erratic zooming. A word Jenkins picked up from a Marlon Brando interview, doggereal tweaks and applies the term “doggerel”—referring to the use of irregular rhythm or measure in poetry, usually for comedic effect—to the ongoing displacement and misplacement of Black peoples in the diaspora, which Jenkins imagines as a kind of embodied irregularity in spaces and histories where whiteness is the norm. Once again, Jenkins places himself into a chaos of images—he appears dancing in a bathroom, in a clip from Mass of Images (giving the sense of an accumulated personal archive), and playing with a football that passes through different hands throughout the video. This footage is juxtaposed with found and original images from a prison, a racetrack, and a protest, along with an excerpt from Charlie’s Angels, several volcanic eruptions, a New Year’s Eve countdown, numerous fragments of news footage, mundane inserts of two rubber-gloved hands doing the dishes, and a dark house party. The dizzying effect of this onslaught is a reckoning with our ever-increasing saturation with mediated images. The sheer volume and range of references, combined with the video’s frenetic editing, produces an overwhelming sense of being plunged into a moving-image maelstrom.
Inconsequential Doggereal exemplifies Jenkins’s aesthetic method, which finds radical meaning in disorder and instability. In a 1986 interview for the Los Angeles Times, the artist referred to Hollywood as having a “classic plantation mentality” and enlisting Black artists to sustain “these illusions for a corporate sponsor.” A wayward digital chronicler, Ulysses Jenkins enacts a refusal to be drafted into these whitewashed and sanitized histories, instead creating art which mischievously and unceasingly assaults visual monopolies in popular culture.
Yasmina Price is a writer and scholar focused on Black Cinema and experimental visual culture by artists across the Global South.