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Los Angeles exhibit features work of video art pioneer Ulysses Jenkins


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: An exhibition in Los Angeles is bring the work of a groundbreaking video artist to the attention of a new generation.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's bright and electric, a swirl of movement, a whirlwind of images. And it's the first major retrospective for 75-year-old artist Ulysses Jenkins.

How does it feel to get this recognition?

Ulysses Jenkins, Video and Performance Artist: Well, Mr. Brown, it is amazing. In a lot of ways, it's just -- it's a bit overwhelming.

Jeffrey Brown: Jenkins is considered a pioneer in the world of video art, which emerged as artists in the 1960s and '70s began using lighter and more affordable video cameras to create work and tell stories.

One of the first Black artists in the field, Jenkins focused on stereotypes he saw in the media and popular culture, the -- quote -- "Mass of Images," as he titled a 1978 video.

Ulysses Jenkins: You're just a mass of images you have gotten to know from years and years of TV shows.

Jeffrey Brown: Now that work can be seen in the exhibition Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation at UCLA's Hammer Museum, co-curated by Meg Onli and Erin Christovale.

Erin Christovale, co-curator: Without Your Interpretation: He, in my mind he has always sort of been the godfather of experimental video, I think especially for Black artists and curators and scholars.

Meg Onli, co-curator: Without Your Interpretation: For me, thinking about his work as ahead of its time, he was picking up a lot of tools that we use today, like literally using this tool right now of Skype for us to have this conversation.

Jeffrey Brown: Jenkins was born and raised in Los Angeles, close enough to feel the excitement of Hollywood studios, while also experiencing the reality of the racial exclusion and tensions of the time.

He became interested in art in high school and went on to get a degree in painting and drawing from Southern University in Louisiana. But it wasn't until his return to L.A. that he became interested in video work.

Meg Onli: So he's thinking in ways that are not necessarily part of traditional filmmaking. He's producing kind of weird and odd videos. He's often out shooting with his friends, and it just has this kind of psychedelic, California vibe to it.

And you really get this sense that they're at the edge of America producing work together as a band of people, really thinking outside of, let's say, art world norms at the time.

Jeffrey Brown: One approach Jenkins adopted, turning himself into a kind of actor or storyteller, taking on a performance role of the African griot.

Ulysses Jenkins: The griot tells the story of the culture through music, through song. People on the outside did not want to necessarily understand what we as African Americans were trying to express.

Taking on the character of a griot fit very succinctly with my heritage and, to that degree, the artistic notions that I wanted to present.

Jeffrey Brown: The work is experimental, sometimes wildly so.

WOMAN: I'm very proud of the Black man's progress. And we're going to make it, baby. We're just going to make it.

Jeffrey Brown: Sometimes more straightforward documentary style, as in "Remnants of the Watts Festival," his take on an annual event commemorating the 1965 Watts uprising.

Erin Christovale: The goal for Ulysses for that sort of experimental documentary was to capture a community and particularly a festival that was really being attacked by the mainstream media. And so his goal for that documentary was really to show Black people feeling empowered, Black people feeling excellent and Black art being valued.

Jeffrey Brown: As a graduate student at what was then called Otis Art Institute, he made "Two-Zone Transfer," a film that furthered his examination of Black representation in media.

Meg Onli: It's really presented as a fever dream. Ulysses wakes up, and he suddenly is confronted with the history of minstrel performance. You see him at one point becoming a preacher.

He then jumps into a performance as James Brown and is dancing. He's thinking about the trappings of Black masculinity, in the sense of the roles that you can play within society.

Jeffrey Brown: Jenkins eventually turned his focus to teaching. He's been a professor of studio art at the University of California, Irvine, since 1993.

What is it you most want to convey to young artists today?

Ulysses Jenkins: Well, first of all, if they can free themselves from the notion of the stereotypical concepts that are embedded in the culture, then, in terms of their usage, that's what I'm trying to get them to recognize.

Jeffrey Brown: For the curators of the show, the work is as relevant now as ever, especially for younger audiences.

Meg Onli: Whether it's questions of representation, multiculturalism, digital technologies, connectivity, questions of colonialism and critique, Ulysses was having all of these conversations really starting in the 1970s, and I think it's really important for us as a younger generation to understand our roots.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you feel like it's been a long time coming?

Ulysses Jenkins: Oh yes. With all the work that I have created, you're just wondering, when would I get the recognition that the work deserved? And this is it. I have been waiting for you all.

Jeffrey Brown: Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation is at the Hammer Museum through the middle of May.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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