Ulysses Jenkins

Ulysses Jenkins’s video and media work is remarkable for its fusion of forms to conjure vibrant expressions of how image, sound and cultural iconography inform representation. Beginning as a painter and muralist, Jenkins was introduced to video just as the first consumer cameras were made available to individuals, and he quickly seized upon the television technology as a means to broadcast alternative depictions of African and Native American cultures—his own heritage—citing the catalyst of Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and its call to black filmmakers to control their subject-hood by controlling the media depicting them.

Adopting the role of a “video griot,” Jenkins draws upon the inspiration of the African oral tradition in videos that are often structured around music and poetic recitation, as well as dynamic performances. The notion of the doggerel is also central for the artist, who communicates complex racial politics in playful or satirical forms, as in Two-Zone Transfer, in which Jenkins and fellow Otis Art Institute students Kerry James Marshall, Ronnie Nichols, and Greg Pitts stage a fever dream of black identity in America, lent a surreal air by smoke machines and a band of minstrels dressed in Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford face masks. The video concludes with Jenkins’s sensual re-enactment of an ecstatic James Brown performance to a squealing audience.

Technology’s role in building community is a primary concern across Jenkins's works. The artist’s earliest video works were made with the collective Video Venice News, which is most known for its video vérité portrait of the Watts Festival of 1972-73, celebrating Black power and resistance, and community bond. As Jenkins’s solo career progressed, it was guided by his involvement in a California art scene that included his Otis colleagues, the social-realist painter Charles White, Studio Z (along with David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger), Nam June Paik and Laurie Anderson, and Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s Mobile Image.

Galloway and Rabinowitz’s satellite projects, which they described as “Aesthetic Research in Telecommunications,” and which were initially sponsored by NASA, the NEA, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, inspired Jenkins to fully exploit the communicative and participatory potential of television. In the wake of his experience with Mobile Image's Hole-In-Space trans-continental video project, Jenkins’s art seems to redress the futility conveyed in his seminal early work, Mass of Images, in which the artist tries but ultimately fails to destroy a stack of TV sets with a sledgehammer. Finding this physical means of destruction blocked, Jenkins pursues alternative methods of breaking down the hegemonic authority of television and white america by creating works that invite starkly new interpretations and involvements, and point to a future informed by an entirely other history.

Ulysses Jenkins was born in 1946, in Los Angeles, California. He studied painting and drawing as an undergraduate at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and later received an MFA in intermedia-video and performance art from Otis Art Institute (now known as Otis College of Art and Design). Prior to enrolling at Otis, from 1970-72 Jenkins worked with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, teaching art to nondelinquent youth, and in 1989, taught video through a gang-intervention program in Oakland. Jenkins is the recipient of numerous awards, including individual artist fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, and named first place in experimental video by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1990 and 92. His work has been included in major exhibitions, including America is Hard to See (2015), at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Now Dig this!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 (2012), at the Hammer Museum, and California Video (2008) at the Getty Center. Jenkins is currently Associate Professor in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and an affiliate professor in the African American Studies program at the University of California, Irvine.