Ulysses Jenkins b. 1946
Mass of Images (1978)
Mass of Images, a recorded performance that does indeed engage black stereotypes perpetuated by the American media. In the work, Jenkins appears on a set accompanied by a stack of televisions, his face obscured by a plastic mask and sunglasses, neck wrapped in American-flag-print scarf, and sporting an Adidas t-shirt underneath a bathrobe, arranged such that only the “ID” of Adidas is visible. The video cuts between this scene and examples of blackface and racist stereotyping from American films and TV. Jenkins repeats a mantra as he settles into a wheelchair and wheels himself toward center stage: “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know / from years and years of TV shows. / The hurting thing; the hidden pain / was written and bitten into your veins / I don’t and I won’t relate / and I think for some it’s too late!”2
Continuing the refrain, he gathers his strength and rears to smash the TVs but falters. He gasps and laughs, rather manically, and says, “Oh, I’d love to do this, but they won’t let me.” He turns toward the camera, repeats the mantra one more time, and then the screen goes dark.
The few published texts on the work that are in circulation—and they are minimal—focus on the inserted panels featuring images of Hattie McDaniel in her all too familiar mammy guise, Bert Williams in blackface, Allen Hoskins playing “Farina” in The Little Rascals, and other instances of blackface and racist imagery. The authors argue that Jenkins aims to illustrate the possibility of overcoming the power of these representations. In the catalog for Now Dig This!, for example, Roberto Tejada focuses on Jenkins’s regaining of his composure following his outburst as signaling the “possibility of…self-possession within the mass of images that work to contain black bodies in representation.”3 However, I would argue against Tejada’s claim, because this possibility is unrealized in the work. At the video’s closing, we leave Jenkins exactly where we found him, repeating the same refrain. Other readings of the video find Jenkins generally critiquing cultural stereotypes, again performing the work that has come to be expected of the black artist of his time.
Across all readings of Mass of Images, the lack of interest in Jenkins’s failure to destroy the television sets is surprising. If the conceptual thrust of the work is meant to be the black-artist-as-subject’s triumph over his flattened, essentialized, racist image—as readings so far have claimed it to be—then we must ask the question: Why doesn’t Jenkins smash them? He tells us why. It is because “they won’t let” him. The line “they won’t let me” betrays a wholehearted desire to commit the act. Jenkins wants to smash the televisions but someone is stopping him. This moment, this break in the otherwise meditative pacing and relative calm of the video, becomes a focal point and in turn positions desire as the unseen force propelling the work. Jenkins noted, in a 2008 interview, that he very carefully positioned the bathrobe over his Adidas t-shirt such that only the “ID” is visible to the viewer, as a sly nod to Freud, signaling that he is concerned primarily with the libidinal economy of the work. Here, we are not quite within the domain of ethics or politics—the domains that the Black Nationalist agenda and Jenkins’s Black Arts Movement contemporaries would have had him occupy. The only politics here is a desire to be himself.
Focusing on this break and viewing Mass of Images as an exercise in failure, rather than a victory over representation, we follow Jenkins into a rather unusual realm of inquiry, one that makes sense to have downplayed when it comes to historicizing black art of the period. Jenkins and his Los Angeles contemporaries, such as Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, Barbara McCullough, and (for a brief period) David Hammons, were often accused of making art that was not political enough or “black enough” due to their interest in new media and abstraction and their willingness to draw on sources from outside of the black tradition. Following Jenkins down this rabbit hole unravels much of the twentieth century’s work toward a black politic of representation and provides a counter-argument against attempts by Black Arts Movement leaders, such as Larry Neal and Ron Karenga, toward a black aesthetic and a black art that articulates a self-determined blackness through images that “speak to and inspire black people.”8 Jenkins departs from this concern over what Frank Wilderson III calls the “hegemonic value” and pedagogical power of visual representations of blackness and black people, which ruled black art criticism and black cinematic theory of the time. Instead, Jenkins is interested in questioning the very nature of blackness itself.