Your installation on the fourth floor of the mill is entitled Inside Views of Tomorrow's Past. Can you tell me a little bit about that title first?
In the show at Wassaic, I hope to point towards some of the past moments that inform our current moment, and the easiest means with which to do that are images. Images of a past that is continuously new, as the past only becomes such once one stops living inside of it. The past only becomes the past when its task is finished. In this case, using mostly photographs (but also a few videos and a sound collage) I want to look at what some of these moments are: if the images had audio with them when they were taken, what would that sound like? What is the uptick of the lives lived + time shared, and where do we fit in that landscape?
The landscape of Blackness is a constantly moving target that is defined by the people most actively participating in said landscape. A portrait of Blackness is a portrait of reinvention and newness that exists outside of time.
There’s a Forbes piece on you where you briefly mention being interested in pushing back on a traditional white wall gallery feel. Can you say more about that?
The idea of the white walled gallery is that nothing exists outside of it, and what is inside for the time you're there is the only truth that exists. But that is a lie: the idea that what I have to say is more important than anything else that is happening in the rest of the world, even if it's only for these five minutes. No. That’s arrogant. That's foolish. And it's something that has been monetized. That's the gallery model, right? The current state of affairs is reasonably bad, but for many of us, it's always been this bad, so I find a lot of the work from many of us on the ever-increasing margins has tended to explicitly include the outside world and try to offer a different take on what that is.
For me, trying to work against the white walled model as much as possible is deeply important, for if a circumstance has told you no nine-hundred-ninety-nine times, why on the thousandth would it all of a sudden be different? Just because I am the one in the white room doesn’t make it not a white room. It’s still a white room, and I am the thousandth elephant. A Black elephant. If your target audience doesn't feel comfortable or safe inside this elephantine space / interested in walking into something that you have made — ostensibly for them, but preferably with them — then who’s it for? Then it’s just for you, and it’s just you braying against a wall. You can do that at home. You don't need to waste other people's time.
The fourth floor of the mill is obviously a lot weirder of a space than your traditional white wall gallery, though. What has that been like? Has it made things easier to not have to push back against that default you dislike? Or has it made it more difficult in some way?
The floor that I have has a very distinct layout to it, where it feels like there's two or three ways to correctly walk through that space. You, the maker, can't think about your body being the ideal body walking through the space, cuz then it's going to be wrong for anybody that's not your exact dimensions — but if you're trying to think about a whole bunch of other physical bodies, that also starts getting really abstract and really difficult. I find the most effective way to navigate that is by listening to the body of the space, which is how I try to approach most spaces, Maxon Mills included. I try to make sure that the physical structure of whatever space I'm in can at least say yes enough to get people in the door, and then once they're there, it's up to me to be able to provide something that will make them stay put. If I'm trying to provide a space at the Wassaic show that is able to stretch in both directions in terms of time, the easiest way to do that is to make it feel like all of this stuff — the hardware, the projectors, the lights — belongs there. That it lives in that space, that it’s always looked like this. Now we know that it hasn’t always looked this way, so the building itself is acting as a bridge between two time spaces. Hopefully I can bracket these photographs of the people and the message of the physical space that you’re already in to get a larger idea of what it is that we’re doin’ over here — to show you some of the inner parts of a forever-timeless, regeneratively time-based Blackness.
How do you think about that not just when constructing the space as a whole, but when constructing individual pieces? Or do you even think about the individual pieces outside of the context of the space at all?
Very rarely do I think about individual pieces, because when you're thinking about singular items / singular pieces you're neglecting the whole. Throwing a sheet over the elephant doesn't mean there’s not still a gigantic elephant standing there, right? And that’s if there’s one! What if there's a whole bunch of 'em? Then there's no space for anything. You got a bunch of sheeted elephants. That’s a terrifying circumstance, but one that you end up in very often, where you see one piece that’s made in a vacuum: “What's going on here?” It has to be multiple pieces of a singular tale that, if executed well on my part, may be an interesting tale for people to hear in a location that said tale isn't told tremendously often.
The way it gets talked about in the exhibition text is that it's “a straightforward tale of a day spent.” Are you thinking of this as an event A, B, C narrative tale, or is it something different for you?
Time isn’t linear like that. Or it’s linear like that for those that can afford for it to be so.
Interesting. Say more.
For people that have time at their disposal, it usually means they have money at their disposal. Any time that you are able to make a decision but then not have it affect immediately the five decisions in front of it — and, often, five decisions behind it — I call that leisure time.
Let's say I have $16.8 million. I got a lot of shit to do today. So I go to the store, I buy some groceries, pick up the kids from soccer. But in the rush to get Timmy and Kwame from soccer practice, I forgot to get the chicken for dinner. Now, I have enough money, I have enough time, I have enough control over my time that I can be like, Eh, I’ll just make somebody else do it. I’ll get my assistant to go take care of it, I've got enough money to pay the delivery fee to get the grocery store to deliver the chicken — I have many options as to how to fix that past decision that don't involve me. I can make a decision once and it's always going to be correct, because I can pay to make it correct.
You can make decisions in any order?
Well, no. For me, as the person with $16.8 million, I can make decisions in a straight line. I decided I was going to have the chicken. I forgot. Doesn't matter. I don't have to worry about making a new decision based on my forgetting because I can just wave a magic wand and somebody else will run back into the past, fix that, and bring that decision to back to me in the present. I have the freedom of forward mobility while I can task someone else with going back. The past can become / stay the past for me, as I can make my past someone else’s present.
How do you think about the relationship between time and the physicality of visual art, then?
Time — at least the way that we're able to interact with time — is physical. Time is the most physical of any of the abstract ethers that we have hold of.
When you're sitting in a room and you’re like, “Oh, man, time flies when you're having fun,” that's because there's no physical things that you're interacting with that are reminding you of the clock that you're on. Right? You're going on your internal clock, and your internal clock is an idea. Whereas when you leave a banana out, it's going to decay. Food is a reminder of an actual time space that we are adjacent to. All these things / objects have clocks. And even for those of us that aren't luxuriated enough to have time in a straight line, time exists for us mostly in relation to other physical things.
I try to find control over what little area of time space that I have by building time signifiers into otherwise static space. If there's a person in any of my paintings, usually they will be smoking, because it's a really easy way to tell time. If you see somebody with a newly lit cigarette, they’ve been standing there for 20 seconds. If there's a bunch of cigarettes on the floor around them, they’ve been there for a while. At the install in Wassaic, the sound of the slide projectors clicking and advancing through creates a sense of time within that room that replaces your own internal clock. You have the actual images that are projected into the physical space that you are in, images of this older time. And the person fishing: fishing is an attempt to regain an absence of time, to separate yourself from all time constraints, but then allow that same timeless space that you built to interrupt itself at any given time when a fish shows up.
You can sit there on your own personal clock, but your time becomes more physical the second a fish pulls on the line.
It's a perfect upbracket of my two interests. Physicality can't exist without time, cuz everything physical has an expiration date. And time without physicality becomes a complete abstract, and an idea that can be molded and warped by whoever wishes.
You also have a show coming up at Anna Zorina Gallery in January, titled 396 Wortman Ave. What is the tale there, if there is one?
For many Black Americans, the idea of the Black family is wide. It's not singular, because anytime your immediate family members leave the house, you're aware that may be the last time that they leave. And you know that that is true for most other Brown and Black people, so if you see somebody doing something that will lead to even the possibility of them not being able to return home, it's very often felt that you need to assist that person to get back. Because for you, if that person doesn't make it home, it's a reminder that yours may not either. And that consistent, shared potential loss creates a reasonably wide bond between the people that haven't chosen to, but have been forced to share it. Right?
So what does that look like when it's inside of four walls? How does that shift when it is moved back outside? And does that story need to be an isolated tale, or can it breathe outside of the walls of the gallery?
The curator for the show, Ché Morales, shares similar standpoints in terms of what walls, floor, and ceiling should do in a space. So the front space is a living room: we’re painting all the walls maroon, the floors are all carpeted, there’s couches for people to sit on, chandeliers. The back space has some dim neon lighting, there are few to little track lights, a bunch of the paintings are on the floor, and others are going to be treated as windows. Most Chelsea galleries have big windows up front, but they all have a wall that covers those windows — the painting on that wall, if you’re facing it from the inside of the gallery, will be a painting of what is outside of the gallery, except there's some people hanging out on the street, a guy leaning on a convertible, a guy smoking.
It is a way to literally Blacken what is outside. All Black life is public life. There is no private life. That's why a basement is necessary, because in many homes the doors are just open — anybody can come in. And that's not counting police stuff. Ayana Jones was seven: they just kicked the door down and killed her on the couch. Just a few months ago, Atatiana Jefferson, a cop went into her house and killed her while she was playing video games with her nephew. Since you are living in public, you do the home things in public spaces, which turns into Bluetooth speaker person, because you're all in my house, which has been turned into everywhere, so we're going to listen to whatever we listen to in my house. Hope you like Luther Vandross and Young Thug.
This also brings that inside and creates a space in which… [Long pause.] I call them Aunt and Uncle Julius. That's the person that I think of. Your aunt with the super iron-flat large curls, often long nails of some sort that don't hinder manual labor somehow. Bald uncle, sometimes baseball cap, sometimes not. If those people can feel comfortable within a space that I've built, within the interior that can mirror their / our exterior interiors, then I feel that I've done something okay.
How are you thinking about time at Anna Zorina, if at all?
For the past two years, almost every painting I've made has taken place during dusk, because that's the only time that Black people are allowed to be outside of the house and not be bothered. Nobody can ask you where you're going. Between five and eight, you're just getting off work, so you could be going home, you could be going to second shift — you're allowed to be in this kind of transit period.
That’s why I wanted to make these physical objects clear capsules of time. The window painting is at dusk. All of the paintings that are in the back space are painted at dusk. And the color palette is very similar between all of them: dark grays, purples, blues. With the opening falling during that time period, most people are going to be seeing the show close to the hours that the paintings are made in. So the time of day that it is in the painting — which is similar to the time of day that you are physically in the space — those collapse. Trying not to reset, but acknowledge your clock — and maybe stretch it back just a little. Because if the opening’s from six to eight, it’s going to be black outside: middle of January, right? But if during that transit time while you were getting there it was purple, you are looking back out at two hours earlier than you arrived. Then you’re thinking about what you were doing two hours earlier, and it brings those extra two hours of time into the physical space that we are sharing inside the gallery. I feel like trying to collapse the inside and outside space — but relying on what your view is of the outside space for that collapsing to take place — should provide access to whomever would like to come in.
This is a bit of a pivot, but I've, personally, been thinking a lot lately about the commodification of attention. I was reading another interview with you in prep for this, though, and you had me thinking about the commodification of intention. You were talking specifically about photography, and how “disposable film cameras require no commitment to the item.” You go on to say that “the disposable camera acts as an in-person photo filter, not a return to intentionality. We are made to pay for intentionality.” Which feels like an interesting shift away from played-out conversations about how we look at screens too much.
This is very broad, but can you say more about how you think of intentionality? Especially in the context of our earlier conversation about the relationship between time and money.
I think of it a lot in terms of travel portraiture, which is one of the things that I do the most: shoot when I'm out on the road. You’re asking for trust, apart from the amount of time that’s spent getting to the picture-taking moment. The more that’s spent on that side / the gaining trust side, often — not always — the more it shows in the actual image.
I think that's one of the things that I find lacking about this current resurgent moment [for the film camera]: you want a look, you want a certain feel, a call back to an earlier era. But without the intentionality put into each of those shots the end result is often shallow and hollow. It feels like that aspiration to buy back the time that many of us feel like we have lost and don't have control over.
Photos are me showing you what was in my eyes and arguably no one else's. But if we're using the same film stock, if we're using the same camera, if we are literally looking through the same eyes at this point, it takes what is supposed to be this wider, more individualistic circumstance, and it shrinks it to a tired talking point. The shrinking of individualism usually comes from a lack of intentionality, and I feel like it kills a large amount of creativity. Because there isn't a need for you to be different or say something different, so you can say the same thing that everybody else is saying, the same way that everybody else is saying it. Without intent in every corner of something that you’re making or involving yourself in, those decisions you’re choosing not to make are still going to be made by someone else. But when every corner is looked at and every single piece is turned, it stops becoming a question about who made it and it starts becoming more of question about where it came from.
How do you think about intentionality when installing in a space, then?
Painting is one of the only objects that will stare out at you with all of its history, but doesn't need somebody to stare back. It will just preach and preach and very rarely does it want or have space for anything from you. That's why paintings are on the floor at Anna Zorina, right? You're touching the floor. So is the painting. You’re sharing a physical space right now. Shadows in the painting come from a physical object that’s sitting outside of the painting. If there's a light source to the left, a person in the middle, a shadow in the painting kicking off to the right: that means that the sun is to your left shoulder from where you're standing, and now you have been asked to stand there, and it's not complete until you are standing in front of it.
Trying to make the intention the person. The same is true for the work up at Wassaic right now, just instead of paintings that ask for your body, it’s objects that acknowledge it. Hopefully this acknowledgement can say thank you to whomever enters for their time + eyes: two of the most expensive of all resources. Please let me hand you back the smallest of something. Whatever I can offer. Trying to say thank you as much as possible. Saying thank you in a language that hopefully will engender more conversation between people they may not have been told thank you from before — may not have said thank you to before. And hopefully providing an opportunity for both.
Azikiwe Mohammed’s artwork has been shown in galleries both nationally and internationally. A 2005 graduate of Bard College, where he studied photography and fine arts, Mohammed received the Art Matters Grant in 2015 and the Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant in 2016. Mohammed is an alumnus of Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York, and Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey. His work has been featured extensively in magazines, including VICE, I-D, Artforum, Forbes, BOMB and Hyperallergic. Mohammed has presented a number of solo exhibitions in venues including the Knockdown Center, Maspeth, New York; SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA; Ace Hotel Chicago, Illinois; IDIO Gallery, Brooklyn, New York; as well as multiple solo offerings at Spring Break Art Show, New York. He has participated in group exhibitions at MoMa PS1, Queens, New York; Antenna Gallery, New Orleans, Louisiana; Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles, California and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, among others. He lives in New York and currently has his studio at Mana Contemporary as part of the Mana BSMT program.