Introduction by Logan A. Locke
I venture to a most familiar place to me "The Otis T. Hammond's House Galleries and Resource Center". This old mansion in Atlanta's West End has intrigued me since the first time I went there to perform poetry for a Kwanzaa festival in 1995. Once, while there, I met an extraordinary artist and made an instant, life-long friend.
I met Kevin Sipp in April 1994 at a place called Ajoullie-Africane which is now Finhankra,located across from the West End Mall on Ralph David Abernathy Ave in Atlanta's Historic West End neighborhood. I have been friends with him since the first day I met him. In absolute truth, I can say that I have never known him to talk without a point. He and I share a like-minded, dogmatic, objective determination to tell it like it is in our writing and poetry. And, we search for what came before us.
I first knew Kevin primarily as a literary artist, as an exceptional writer with a clear vision and unique voice. I knew he attended The Atlanta College of Art. Then one Wednesday, he told me that he had been awarded an artist's residency at the Hammond's House. After he finished his residency, he was offered a job there and he has been there ever since. To possess the type of talent that is in his 5'9", 160 pound frame, and to have produced the amount of art work that he has produced (during the 2002 National Black Arts Festival, a celebrated show at Kubatanas Gallery, and the release of his spoken word CD-Shamanic MC's) usually comes with a heavy price for the bearer. And it creates frustration for critics, collectors, and fans who are waiting to see what their favorite artist will decide to do next.
On his terms. Up the high road. I immediately referenced him when someone once questioned what is required to create a visual artist. That is, if you give a damn about those sorts of rules. But Kevin doesn't care, and he is taking art where he wants. He won't be deterred. Maybe because he knows if he wanted to, he could be the darling of the critics. So many very talented people have the most awful outlook on life. It is rare to find someone that is so in tune with the universe and doesn't take himself so seriously. But Kevin is such a person.
Interview by Melissa Prunty Kemp
I'm at Hammonds House Galleries in Atlanta, GA conversing with Kevin Sipp. How are you doing, Kevin?
I'm doing well.
Well I wanted to add a few things to some earlier information we collected from you so our audiences will know you better. I know you're not from Atlanta, right?
Not at all. I was born in Harlem, New York in 1966. I don't claim it though because my mother was on vacation! (laughter) And I was raised in Daytona Beach, Florida. I was only in New York for two weeks.
Well I never knew that about you; that's interesting.
Yeah, she was on her way to the Schomburg and she ended up across the street. (laughter)
At Harlem Hospital?
You got it.
How long have you been here in Atlanta?
I've been in Atlanta since 1987. I came up here to attend the Atlanta College of Art that year.
And you never left. You've done a great deal to establish your career here.
Yes. After graduating from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991, I would go home occasionally, but the bottom lines was I needed to be some place where I could pursue my art career. I had made some very good friends and very good contacts. I have adopted Atlanta as a second home. My younger sister decided to come up here to go to school as well, and she established herself. And she said that was following me.
Well, that's good. You've got some family and that always helps. So what other kinds of advantages, particularly for your art, have you found living in Atlanta?
What I think has always been interesting about Atlanta for me is the cultural community, always in development, always in change. But, our overall art environment. Financially it's never been great; but having access to the High Museum, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, living in the West End for many years; you just had this sense that the world was gathering here. So it was a good place to be.
Do you still feel that way after a number of years, what like 15 years now?
I still think Atlanta is one of those places that has always had this potential that has not fully been capitalized on. I mean they have a great international community, a great Afro-Latin culture, a great African, various African cultural groups here; you name it. I think it's an international city that has never fully dealt with what it can do.
What do you think it needs to move forward to the next stage of greatness?
I think it needs more collaborative projects going on. I think you have a lot of communities that become isolated once they get here in Atlanta. So you'll have international communities bringing great stars here, and acts and entertainment; but they don't get the information out beyond the cultural groups. Not always, but for the most part there's not a lot of collaboration with the groups in Atlanta. I think one of the biggest tragedies was when the Atlanta Arts Festival folded due to financial, and I think conservative attitudes.
The Atlanta Arts Festival?
Yeah, that was an arts festival that took place for many many years at Piedmont Park from I think as far back as the late sixties and was going on almost every year until 1997 when due to financial problems, they folded. But the year they folded was probably the best year. Unfortunately they moved form Piedmont Park to Downtown Centennial Park; and the groups they brought were so controversial that many sponsors simply didn't want to sponsor what I call radical, good art. So a lot of the conservative attitudes kicked in and before you know it, they were gone.
That's often been the case; historically speaking?
And I think that's the biggest thing about Atlanta. I think Atlanta's been a city that has always been battling with the old south/new south. The new south is nice, but the old south has all the money.
And those conservative attitudes that control the money will only go so far. So you can bring as many Impressionist shows as you want to the High Museum because that's good old art. But the minute you start trying to do some radical art, it's not going to get the funding that those other shows would.
Well since you're on the subject of patronage. . . um, it's really something. Who do you think is patronizing radical visual art, different kinds of art, emerging art, African American art?
I'm even at a loss to answer that.
I really couldn't say. Cause I look at my work, and outside of maybe two collectors, nobody's really bought my work. But that's not the problem, for me (laughter). I think you have to kinda accept that fact, that you might have to find your patrons outside of the south for that type of work. So, I really couldn't answer the question.
How would you describe your work; and since you said patrons outside the south, maybe you can tell me what about it doesn't make you fit?
I think one of the things that happened in the south with a lot of art-you had the folk art movement coming up, you had a school of art in the south, especially of African American artist who seem to be minding nostalgia in their art-artwork that looked back to the past wrongs of that were visited upon African Americans, and tried to redress those wrongs and show the beauty of African retentions in the Americas through their art. And there was a market for that. But then you have a market for African American artists and African artist, African Diaspora artists who are trying to create works that don't necessarily fit into an easy racial category. That's kinda mixing and matching the world but still having an African perspective underlying it. What's harmed a lot of what I call Afro-futurist work is old ideas of what exactly African culture is. So you get these stereotypes, be they good or bad, where people say, "that's not African Art," or "that's not African American art." And this limits what a lot of people create in my opinion.
I want to know if you might help define for our audience the difference between a mid career and a seasoned artist? When do you decide if you're mid career?
The market decides that you're mid career.
What does that mean?
I think that's determined by how long you've been out in the art market, how consistent you've been and how much publicity you've gotten. It's generally like stocks. A lot of people look at art and they forget that it really is a business. What makes a good artist or a great artist is consistency of quality, of exhibitions and patronage. What you what a lot of times these days unfortunately is a lot of people will get patronage before they get the consistency of quality and publicity. A mid career artist in my definition is someone who has been steady in their progression as an artist and steady with their quality over at least a five to ten year period.
A master is someone who can sustain that over decades, like 20 to 30 years of good work. Unfortunately with today's market, what you have is a lot of people in the reproduction/print market who come up with a gimmicky style that create posters on it and sell thousands and thousands. And for some reason they think that's a good work of art because a bunch of people have bought it. It's the attitude we have with movies today; a movie's not good unless it's a blockbuster, unless it's made millions. It could be the number one movie for ten weeks, but it's a crappy movie. I think the same thing is happening in the art world now. People consider something good because a lot of people have bought it. But they don't look at the compositional qualities of it; just the basic foundation of what makes a good work of art good. For me a mid career artist is somebody who has sustained quality work over an extended period of time and a master is someone who has sustained it over a lifetime.
I appreciate that definition. At what point would you define your own art? I'm not tempting you to say you're mid-career or anything; but, just generally speaking, how would you define the kind of art, the media you use?
I would say I'm still emerging in what I'm trying to do. And that's the funny thing also. It's definitely not determined by age. Some artists might not reach that point of consistency until their 40's; some reach it early. I think I'm still getting it together when it comes to what I'm trying to do. And what I'm trying to do in my current works is create mixed media installations that use musical technology and visual projection, basically sound and vision to create environments. I've gotten a lot of good publicity over it, but I know where I want to head with it, and I don't think I've made it there yet.
You're young, you have many years ahead of you. Tell me about your artistic influences. Who set you on your path, what made you become an artist?
I just can remember ever since I was a child wanting to become an artist. I did see a lot of artwork that kept me on the path. My grandfather was insured by Atlanta Life Insurance for many years, and every year we would get the calendars with the Art Annuals in them. And this was like when I was in my teenage years.
When I was a child, I was into comic books like everybody else; I don't think people realize how large an influence comic books have on artists. Here was this medium where you could learn to be an architect, learn to draw bodies, and even learn to put a narrative together. So this whole idea of being able to control it; it was like cheaply making movies for me.
I was always fascinated by the way things were put together like that; and I was also a book-a-holic ever since I was a child. I would collect books and look at the illustrations; renaissance art, African art, African American art, you name it; I was just influenced by the world. In my teenage years, I began to focus, interestingly enough in what I would call the hermetic traditions, the magic the secret societies and traditions. I was always interested in the diagrams, the glyphs, and the symbols that were created by the cultures. I was very interested in the evolution of religion on the world. Where did these symbols come from? Why were some symbols demonized and some praised?
And the more I began to investigate, I'd say around ten or eleven ('cause my mother was into a lot of what they would call the new age traditions and yoga.) And I'd see all these beautiful diagrams with the Hindu gods and I'd see these charkas diagrams, and I'd begin to illustrate those. In doing so, it took me into wanting to know more about those systems of thought. I suddenly began to see the connection between art and religion and how they were just interchangeable. So a lot of my work began to investigate that, the realm of myth, fantasy, and religion. Really, I don't think I've changed; I'm still pursuing that path in my work, I'm just getting better at it.
Then, let me jump forward to coming to art school and then being broadened to the history of art, and coming to the Atlanta College of Art at a time when they had two major exhibitions, one on African Art and one on African American Art that had African retentions in it. I was turned on to the works of Renee Stout, John Biggers, the Africobra art group; so suddenly I saw that there was a history of African American artists who were pursuing the same things I was pursuing as a child. African religious traditions, African religious retentions, connected to the broader spectrum of world religion; that was probably the biggest influence I had. In the late 80's, the works of Jean Michele Basquiat where he was sampling, using almost the Hip Hop aesthetic in the visual realm. So suddenly I saw that I was coming up in an age where African American art was receiving the recognition that it had deserved for a long time, not only that recognition but the financial backing that went along with it. So it was a good time.
Since you've been here in Atlanta for about sixteen years now, what are the issues you find going on in the arts community that you'd like to see solutions for or that you see people struggling with?
I'm really glad you asked that question and it's a good one. A year ago, the exhibition, Without Sanctuary came to Atlanta. What's interesting about that exhibition was it almost didn't come to Atlanta because there was not a major institution in Atlanta that was willing to accept it before the King Center stepped up. So in the initial phases when they were debating whether to have the show here, a friend of mine named Peggy Dobbins decided to do a show called Strange Fruit that responded to the "Without Sanctuary" exhibition with contemporary art. And the reason we did that is because it upset me that that component hadn't already been a part of the idea. That contemporary artist could respond to this social issue that I think is still very important today. I would love to see more exhibitions like that. I think artists have gotten real elitist and are real apolitical. And then they wonder why the politicians are determining what happens in the art world because they are not involved in the day to day struggle to keep the arts alive. If anything, I would like to see artists get more socially involved again. Picasso, who was one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, was very political with his works. One of his inspirations for establishing his use of collage was because he was a part of a group called Spiral and these were artists--Richard Mayhew , Emma Amos, and a lot of others. And he wanted them to actually create a group collage that was part of the Civil Rights protest posters. He thought that artists ought to have their voices involved in the movement just like the preachers, just like the people in the streets. And that inspired him to start doing his collage technique. But from there he went on to push collage to new realms of thought. So him getting involved in the politics of his times, he was able to find an innovative way to use an art medium. I think a lot of times politics will inspire artists. And I think hard times inspire artists. And those two go hand in hand often.
I even think about rap music. The golden age of rap was when Reagan was cutting social programs left and right and putting out a lot of negative images about African Americans and Latino Americans. Yet against that backdrop, artists felt politicized.
You raise an age-old issue, particularly in the African American artistic community. And that's true for writers and artists and visual musicians. And it is that mandate somehow that given our circumstances here in the U.S., we really should be socially active and political. There should be art for social consciousness sake, as opposed to art for arts sake. So, are you saying that you feel. . . .
Well, I'm feeling the choice should be there. I'm not saying there should be one or the other. I think that's one of the biggest problems African Americans have with their creativity in America. They get polarized. There are some days I wanna create art work that has nothing to do with politics. But then there are some days when something happens in my life and I need to respond politically to it or I will get crushed by it. So I don't think it's an either or concept.
That's one of the problems with African American tradition. People say you're not in the movement, so you're not doing the work. But someone else says, well, that's not the only movement in my life, there's a world out there that we need to be a part of. It's both; it's not an either or situation. It all depends on the circumstances the artist is in at the times. So, I don't see it as a problem, but like you say it has been an issues that has crippled the growth of African American creativity in the Americans. Well, really world wide, because I'm sure there are a lot of Africans going through the same thing in post-colonial Africa. Probably everybody thought that they should respond to the colonial traditions; some decided to go off to school and go to Europe and paint flowers! (laughter) So it always been the case and there will always be that debate.
Maybe that's one of the great things about art; it's such a wide, wide world that it houses and harbors all these very distinct communities who are creating, or fighting around, certain issues.
Exactly. Or not! I'm glad you brought up the question, because one of the biggest issues I've had with African American culture is that if you look at the movie industry, which is an artistic industry. African myth is absent for the most part in most of our dialogue. The Judeo-Christian religion has crippled our growth as a people. White European Christians have no problem celebrating Greek Myth. People of Chinese culture have no trouble celebrating their myth and making movies about their myth. African Americans seem to be the only people who are scared to celebrate their African myth, which is their emotional history. There are no movies being made about the Yoruba gods , about Ausar and Auset that are fully bringing it to life. No movies being made about Sundiata , no movies being made about Indaba My Children the myth of the Zulus of South Africa. And if they are being made, they are not being made by African Americans. Disney has never made a movie about African myth. They made the Lion King but they didn't put any African people in it. The only African you saw in the Lion King was at the beginning of the movie in the distance walking a thousand miles away from the animals. Then I read somewhere where somebody said the Lion King was basically an African telling of the Hamlet story. And I looked around and I said, yes the son avenges the death of the father. No, that's Isis and Osiris where Heru had to avenge his father Osiris who was killed by his evil uncle, Seth. So it's like just getting back to that basic myth that originated all these other stories in the world; that's what I'm really hungering for. That and futurist movies.
And when I say futurist movies, I mean futuristic movies based on African myth. People have done it, but no one has put African characters in strong leads. I look at the Matrix and I laughing at all the mythic symbology in all those movies. And when Morpheus says we're going home to "Zion" anybody who's come up in a Rastafarian African influenced tradition will know even the way he said it was based on an African perspective. If not, you'd think they were talking about just traditional Jewish tradition.
How about the fact that Zion is in the middle of the earth, which is close to the Yoruba tradition that believes that "heaven" is in the ground as opposed to in the air.
Exactly. And that whole idea of the four moment of the Sun and the cycle of life, death, resurrection and rebirth, which originated in a Congo-African culture, that was elaborated on in Egyptian culture, that was stolen by the western European Christian culture. They refuse to acknowledge that basic mythic structure that Africa gave to the world.
Do you think that visual art being created by African Americans is the only place right now where you can explore and recite African myth successfully without being interrupted, without being manipulated or commercialized?
No, I have no problem with it being commercialized if it retains its power. There have been a lot of western traditions that are based on African traditions, but not openly acknowledged. And that's down to the Catholic Church. If you look at the Catholic Church, that is the resurgence of Veronica-Kemetic tradition codified as a set of rituals in the Christian tradition, which is at its root African. So I look at it and I say people are using African myth, but only now due to the DNA research, are people beginning to acknowledge that we are all Africans under the skin and that the first people to think about these thing were African. They simply spread throughout the world. What I'm hungry to see are movies that base that and trace that and movies that set it in the future. One of the biggest problems I have with African American art is there simply isn't enough futuristic wonder in the art.
I have two things to say about that. How would you describe futuristic vision? What do you think the future of African American visual art is going to be? I would challenge you also to respond to those people who think that the African American root is in America, that there are traditions and structures and designs, and even amalgamations of African composition, structure and design with when we used to be a slave that makes for something completely different than what you might find in Africa? Do you see where I'm going with that?
I see where you're going with that. Rather than say African American culture, I would say African Diasporic culture, and the Diaspora didn't start with slavery. That's always been the case. The minute the original Africans migrated out of Africa into Europe, into Asia, into the Americas, mutated into the various races we know today, that had already been going on. Experience moving from one environment to another changed art. Moving from one environment to another changed philosophy. I don't see that as a problem.
When I look at slavery, when I look at the fact that, and I'll put it like this, if you had an African slave from the Dogon region, captured, from the Congo region , captured. They ended up on the same slave ship. One was male, one female. They were force to intermarry. Let's say they were fortunate enough to be in the Carribean where families were pretty much kept together. He may have been a Dogon high priest and she might have been a Congo high priestess. They passed on to this child in the Americas all the knowledge that they had from the Congo and Dogon traditions. Now that person becomes a roots worker in Haiti. And they become a practitioner of Voodun, which is a mixing with the Yoruba, which is mixing with the Ocan. Suddenly you have this composite African that's a conglomerate of all that was before it. Then that person marries an Indian, a Native American, who shares the knowledge with him. That person marries a European who might have been Irish practicing the Wiccan tradition, suddenly you have a Jamaican patois and everybody wondering where that accent is coming from and it's really an Irish place they're coming from and they're dancing the Maypole. That's the way of the world, that intermixing. But we have no problem with that. What we have a problem with is the African being denied. Not that it's intermixing with all these other cultures.
But that it's not acknowledged as being a part of the mix.
That's a wonderful way to interpret that subject, actually. I think of Africans as being out sailing around checking out the world as they were, and meeting up with Mayans and Aztecs and causing a change in their art. . . .
And Celts, which I find just wonderful, and causing a change in their art. I learned from you that one significant figure in the Celtic tradition, the faerie, the little person, was a Pygmy from Africa, out sailing around.
And they found Pygmy bones as far away as Iceland. And so this whole idea that Africans were somehow cut off from the world and were ignorant primitives who weren't trading and selling is ridiculous.
Who said that? That such a myth could exist today still is just ridiculous. I guess you'd have to have your head in a rock. But even today with all the knowledge that is available, you'd be surprised at how many people still won't come out with it and say that Africa is the place where everything and everyone came from. And here's my example: watching Oprah Winfrey last week when she did the "Iraq 101" (3/2003) She said that, of course, Iraq used to be Babylon and Mesopotamia. But she also said that it was also the birth place of mathematics. How can you say that?
Because she's reading an out of date books.
I was just amazed. I would have thought that if she couldn't conceive that it was an African culture that invented mathematics, she could have at least thought of an Egyptian. They kinda needed math to build pyramids you know.
And even they have just acknowledged now that the birth of writing, which they also used to try say started in Babylonia, actually started in the Kemetic Nubian culture at least two thousand years before that. Another thing they don't wanna deal with is the fact that the Babylonians and the Mesopotamians were colonies of Africans. That's the problem we face. The biggest problem African and African American scholars have with history is when we try to go back and correct just basic lies that white supremacy wanted to put out there, they always try to make it look as if you're making up stories to take away from their power when you're just trying to state the truth and the facts. They try to make it sound like you're speaking some Nation of Islam fantasy, which I think is one of the most wonderful remix traditions ever. (laughter)
I still think we have major battles being thought over those artists who are figurative, who are "black artists" as opposed to the abstractionists. And we still have problems with the African American abstractionists, so how in the world can we possibly get to futurist?
Well let's look at why we have a problem with African American abstractionists. The reason we are fixated so much on African American figurative work is because of racism. I think you have . . . .
In our race or being directed against us?
Both. You had a whole generation of African Americans who felt is was their social responsibility to paint good pictures about African Americans living the American dream. For so often, we were depicted as outside the American dream and we weren't the norm. So you had a lot of people who got locked into "grandma sitting on the porch," or the "neo African dancing in black silhouette" type of images. It was like "feel good art." But it was just as trite and stereotypical as the negative in my opinion. That kinda work is what I call the lowest common denominator of being black. I think there is figurative black and then there's abstract black. And abstract blackness is beyond the typical. And not all of it's good either. A black artist doing abstraction doesn't necessarily make them good.
Well, you know, it's abstract, so it's hard to determine what's good?
There are still criteria that we can use to judge good art from bad art. That's one of the biggest problems I have with the visual art criticism today is this, some people wanna give you this "it's all good" type of criticism.
What's the difference between Coltrane and Kenny G? I'm asking that.
How about genius in composition. Experience. Musical skill that allows you to put together intricate musical compositions as opposed to. . . .
Then why can't we use that same criteria for art? You can, but a lot of people don't see that connection. You have people who are masters at composition and the use of materials, masters at how they apply it to whatever surface they are applying it to. The progressiveness of it. And then you have people who are just doing run-of-the-mill, stereotypical, derivative work. And I think that needs to be stated. The main evidence of major African American abstractionist over the history, like Ed Clark, William T. Williams and Sam Gilliam, yet someone like Ed Clark doesn't get a lot of recognition in the African American tradition because he was an abstractionist whose work could not be linked overtly to some agenda. The masses couldn't use his work to demonstrate openly what they considered to be an African aesthetic or an African aesthetic. And that's a problem because when you look at African art, and you look at the patterns, structures and shapes in it, that was the height of abstraction. If you look at the figures in African art, they were mainly abstract. They had already moved beyond the figurative because they were comfortable with themselves. Therefore, they didn't have to constantly regurgitate that in their work. They were looking beyond the realm of the physical into the spiritual world. So that even can be traced by to an African aesthetic. Due to racism in America, there were artists who felt they had to paint a good portrait of the good African American. And that restricted them from moving forward.
Melissa Kemp is a College English Instructor at Bauder College in Atlanta GA. She is a freelance writer and poet. Originally from Roanoke, VA, she has resided in Atlanta for the last five years.