Six African-American men sat in rowing machines in the center of a gallery, rowing until they could row no more. One by one, each man reached the point of exhaustion and stopped.
This performance artwork was inspired by ‘slave galley’ scenes in old movies where slaves row themselves to the point of collapse. The artist behind this public display of physical labor as a work of art was this university’s alum Jefferson Pinder.
The “Ben-Hur” piece was one of many works Pinder discussed March 24 at the David C. Driskell Center in Cole Field House. It was also the most memorable.
Junior art major Meirav Finn said the Ben-Hur video was the most significant moment of Pinder’s presentation.
“It was so intense and mesmerizing. I really felt their strife and struggle to keep going. When each person started to stop [rowing], I felt that the next person was working that much harder,” she said.
Jazlyn Nketia, a junior psychology major, said she also found the video riveting.
“It was a very specific method that he used. Seeing the actual participation and that process of wearing down was really interesting.”
Pinder explained he wanted to create something the audience could engage with. As these men were rowing, people sat around them just watching. At first, their movements were perfectly synchronized, but as time went on, they moved more chaotically and with fewer men participating.
Pinder said this portrayal of physical labor boils down to survival of the fittest, while also maintaining a sense of beauty in gradual collapse of the laborers.
Much of Pinder’s work focuses on the meaning of blackness and tying together the past, present and future of black people. However, he said he avoids literal tropes and obvious messages, aiming instead for more subtleties and nuances within the black experience. Rather than spelling the message out for the audience, Pinder said he wants his audience to put effort into finding meaning in his art.
“I think it’s cool that he takes this subject, which is discussed so much, yet he brings a whole new way of discussing it,” Finn said. “I found it really fascinating. Even as a white person, I still thought I could connect to it.”
Korey Richardson, a senior studio art major, said he likes the subtlety of Pinder’s work.
“I like how it’s executed. It’s very clean and crisp without too much literal elements to it,” Richardson said.
Another common theme in his art is afrofuturism, which he said stemmed from his love of sci-fi. Afrofuturism combines elements of sci-fi and technology to look forward to the future of blackness. His video Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien, inspired by space films and NASA footage, is an example of afrofuturism.
He also discussed “Passive/ Resistance,” a performance piece of a white man repeatedly hitting Pinder in the face. Pinder said he created the piece after a curator asked him to make something focused solely on the African-American experience since 2008.
More recently, Pinder began exploring racial protests like Ferguson and how modern protesting compares to those during the Civil Rights Movement.
Pinder worked with breakdancers to reenact the Ferguson riots. The dancing conveyed the social strife of the protesters, he said.
Not every dancer he worked with was black, either. Some had different backgrounds, but “in this context, they were able to represent black bodies,” Pinder said.
Multiple times throughout his presentation, Pinder expressed his interest in continuing to communicate blackness in new, different ways, even hinting at possibly conveying the black experience without any black person present.
He admitted it may not be entirely possible, but said it is something he wants to explore.
“Blackness isn’t something you’re born with and know everything about,” Pinder said. “Blackness is an exploration.”
Featured Photo Credit: Daryl Atwell, is the lead rower in this performance. His position up-front is essential for pacing and order in the first half of the work. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Pinder’s website.
Rosie Kean is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.