Artist Ekene Ijeoma finds the humanity in data points.
In “A Counting,” he turns the demographics of cities such as New York and St. Louis into sonic poems featuring crowdsourced recordings of locals counting to 100, continually remixed. In a video version, the numbers appear in native scripts. To contribute to a national edition, call 844-959-3197. Find it online at https://a-counting.us.
The artist runs the Poetic Justice group at MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary collective using art to cultivate new approaches to justice. “A Counting,” which started in 2019, is a Poetic Justice project.
By “poetic,” Ijeoma, 36, means art with juice and urgency. He wants his information-based work about, say, the refugee crisis or mass incarceration to have the same visceral impact as photographs of refugees or prisoners.
“[It’s] bridging the gap between facts and feelings,” he said over Zoom from his home in Brooklyn. “It gets to ‘what are the things being felt when experiencing this?’”
“Ekene is investigating our culture, and Black culture specifically, thinking about it through technology, and how to use technology as a Black man and a Black artist,” said Rachel Adams, chief curator & director of programs at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. This summer, “A Counting” will be included in the museum’s exhibition “All Together, Amongst Many: Reflections on Empathy.” So will Ijeoma’s “Deconstructed Anthems,” in which “The Star Spangled Banner” is played on repeat, each time with notes dropping out at a rate mimicking that of the rise of mass incarceration in the US. Finally, there’s only silence.
“Why make a work about mass incarceration? Am I going to wait until I’m wrongfully accused or profiled to make a work about something that’s disproportionately affecting people like me? No,” Ijeoma said. “All these things could happen to me.”
“All these things” are covered in the Black Mobility and Safety Seminar, the Poetic Justice group’s free Tuesday afternoon lecture series on Zoom — a spirited conversation about racism’s impact on Black life. Ijeoma has structured the seminar like a bildungsroman. Topics have included “Birthing while Black,” “Breathing while Black,” and “Voting while Black.”
The idea came to him as he learned of research by the Vera Institute of Justice documenting a sharp increase in incarceration in rural jails. Nationally, the rate of incarceration of Blacks in jails and prisons is significantly higher than that of whites.
“It made me think how driving while Black to see someone who’s incarcerated, you might be pulled over and incarcerated. Or, as we’ve seen, killed yourself,” Ijeoma said.
He thought of the Negro Motorist Green Book, published from 1936 to 1966 to help Black travelers avoid dangerous routes and find friendly businesses.
“I thought it would be interesting to reimagine what that means today, and not just with driving,” Ijeoma said. “[Racism] goes past physical and spatial mobility. It’s mental. It’s socioeconomic. It goes across all the ways in which you can be mobile as a human.”
The guest speakers are historians, activists, and artists. In “Birthing while Black,” Arline Geronimus, associate director and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, spoke about her concept of “weathering” — the way systemic racism can erode a Black person’s health.
In “Eating while Black” artist and chef Omar Tate shared the poetics of Black culture he employs in his culinary practice and addressed food insecurity. He’s the founder of Honeysuckle, a nomadic dining outfit using food as art, now working to buy property to open a grocery, meat market, and cafe library in West Philadelphia.
“I center my work in the humanness of Blackness,” Tate said over the phone from Philadelphia. “The Black human existence is one of the most powerful life forces on the planet to me.”
The seminar, while unflinching about systemic racism, glories in that life force.
Earlier this month, “Voting while Black” featured Darryl Pinkney, author of “Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy,” and Nsé Ufot, CEO of the Atlanta-based voter-mobilization nonprofit New Georgia Project.
Pinkney recounted the recent history of voter suppression in this country. Then Ufot spoke.
“This ain’t your granddaddy’s civil rights movement,” she said, adding that she meant no disrespect. She launched into tales of blunt-force voter suppression in her state and the bold, crafty legal and technological measures her organization takes to counteract it. She sounded like a superhero.
Jordan Hayles, an independent intellectual and creative in San Diego, has cleared her schedule to attend the seminars.
“Ekene sets the space with his curated speakers — people obsessed in a very loving way with what they do,” Hayles said. In these seminars, she added, “Black people can be who they are in their truest Blackness. They show up that way. We are so colorful, animated, story-full, and wicked smart and resourceful.”
Upcoming lectures include “Driving while Black” on March 30, “Working while Black” on April 6, and “Loving while Black” on April 13.
“I was going to end with “Dying while Black,” but I felt like love was a better thing to end on,” Ijeoma said. “And actually, the story about love isn’t that great. It’s talking about the low rates of marriage for Black women.”
The artist is a busy man. His sculpture “Breathing Pavilion,” in which modulated light sculptures help visitors regulate their breath, opened in Brooklyn earlier this month. It calls to mind George Floyd’s dying words, as well as the struggles of the pandemic. “Freedom Radio,” a participatory audio piece akin to “A Counting,” is also ongoing. Call 844-335-3588 to be recorded answering questions about what freedom means to you.
Hayles, who is also a dancer, phoned in. “It was so cool,” she said. “It forced me to think about something so important to me. I connected it with Black mobility and the ability to move my body.”
Ijeoma’s work breaks down monolithic topics — such as freedom, or the Black vote — into nuanced, approachable, and human terms. The key, he reflected, is to listen.
“That’s what the Black Mobility and Safety Seminar is about,” Ijeoma said. “Listening for the answers to questions you didn’t know you had. Listening for questions to the answers you didn’t know you had.”
The effect is energizing for the audience. For the artist, it’s inspiring.
“I feel like I’m just listening,” Ijeoma said, “And waiting for the right stories to tell.”
BLACK MOBILITY AND SAFETY SEMINAR
March 30, April 6, April 13, 1-2:30 p.m. Free with registration. www.media.mit.edu/posts/public-guest-lectures-black-mobility-and-safety-in-the-us/