Interview: Kindness Explores The Sci-Fi Surrealist Paradise In Jacolby Satterwhite’s Artwork

It’s suprisingly rare to see work which trancends the limitations of the forms that have come before it. The inherent risk of work like this is that it can be confusing and impenetrable to the first time viewer. My own journey with Jacolby’s work is similar – I certainly needed additional context before I began to appreciate this enormous universe of original symbolism and movement – as he puts it, “an unlimited sci-fi surrealist paradise.” I’ll be glad if this interview opens up this world to readers of Saint Heron – the futuristic and virtual often don’t lend themselves to stories of family, belonging and love, but Jacolby Satterwhite‘s work pulses with generosity. – Kindness

Kindness: I first came across your work in numerous contexts – different exhibitions, some institutional shows, and, as I think I’ve told you before, it was just so dense and complex – I didn’t really get it. And then I was lucky enough to go to Black Portraitures in Johannesburg last year where Christina Knight gave a presentation about your work and specifically about your piece entitled “Country Ball”.

That opened everything up for me! It gave me such a rich appreciation for the work and for the emotional thread running through. I think the way that your work ties into family, and ties into your relationship with your mother, for example – and issues around queerness and mental illness – these are just subjects that I think a lot of people of color and especially queer people of color can feel immediately. Having that opened up in your work, for me, was incredible and powerful.

Jacolby: I appreciate that. I feel like that piece [“Country Ball”] was actually the first work I resolved when I quit painting. I made a lot of new media works and performance pieces previously, but I feel like that one was the first one I started when I transitioned from painting to new media. I took a year break from the concept and then I completely destroyed the first version and remade it. What I like about “Country Ball” is that it was a high moment for me, and it opened up a conceptual strategy for me to be political, formal, and abstract simultaneously while communicating through multiple entry points. Initially I was inspired by the parallel of this home video including my family dancing to deep house music in the woods in South Carolina. It was a Mother’s Day party, and it reminded me of all these books and documentaries I’ve watched on Nigerian masquerade culture, where they celebrate the queen mother. The whole thing is that the mother is the pivot and creator of life in Nigeria. I thought, “Wow, what an interesting parallel.” I thought I was going to have a tongue in cheek response with this piece, but the more I kept unpacking the layers and observing this camcorder footage, I realized this ready-made home video was a document of my family in the ‘80s dancing to music that was recorded and made for a new small community in Northern American cities that were dealing with the adversaries of Reaganomics and AIDS. It was Todd Terry, Frankie Knuckles, Mr. Fingers, and Acid House. All of these were sonic utilities and escapisms for Latino and Black bodies to have a church for them.

Kindness: I want to unpack some of those layers for people who haven’t come across your work previously or may have, but don’t understand everything that’s happening simultaneously. Your family is from the south originally?

Jacolby: Yes, deep south. I grew up with my family in Columbia, South Carolina and I would stay in Atlanta with my brothers in the summers.

Kindness: So talk me through how a southern family partying in the south would end up having a cookout to a house music soundtrack. How?

Jacolby: Well, my brothers are both gay. We’re all gay. They would go to gay clubs in Atlanta and New York. It was in the ‘80s, so we didn’t have Napster. In a local record store you’re only going to get R&B, gospel, soul, country, and rock. Finding a house record in the ‘80s was like finding a really unique relic, so my brothers would bring cassette tapes home from the clubs that they would go to. I was a kid, like age 3 or 4, and they brought home the tape and played it at the party. It was funny because I grew up on soul, like Earth, Wind & Fire, Frankie Beverly, Anita Baker, and Donald Byrd. That was the musical lexicon that I was more stained with as a rule. So, it was funny to see my family doing the electric slide and these entire southern, Black urban dance moves to gay music. It’s also funny because my family is very religious, Methodist church family. It was a sin to be gay.

Kindness: Was there any kind of resistance to the musical soundtrack? Or was there just a shrug of the shoulder?

Jacolby: Oh no, my family is chill. I think that this is a generalized, sweeping statement but southern families sweep things under the rug, and no matter how clear you can be about something, if they don’t want to believe it they’re not going to believe it. If you walk into the room with a dress on they’re going to be like, “Yeah you know, you’re just special.” It kind of has to do with the traumas of Black pain. I feel that way in my own tendencies as a Black man. Sometimes I feel like I evade the truth and don’t have a sense of self care when I confront what’s going on. I keep it moving in order to adapt and survive. I feel like that’s a genetic thing passed down from slavery. I know that’s a reach, but I think the coping mechanism derived from the south comes from keeping it moving – don’t look left or right, go forward.

Kindness: A number of elements in your work relate to things from your mother Patricia’s imagination. Either the series of drawings that she did inspired by entrepreneurship and the creation of inventions as seen on the home shopping network – or with the musical piece you’re doing now, creating music to recordings that she would sing acapella. Your mother’s creativity and imagination had a huge effect on you, but did her creativity predate the mental illness? Did that then become combined with her creativity?

Jacolby: I feel like I was born into her mental illness. When I grew up with her making things, she was a working woman, very family oriented, working a 9-5 while raising us very well. I think she just developed a mystery illness and had to quit her job. She became a stay at home mom, and I think she had bipolar and manic depression. I was five years old when she started to change. My father had just lost his grocery store and we switched from upper-middle class to really poor. I think a lot of thresholds changed and she started to experience PTSD that came with insomnia. She would watch these paid programs that came on at 3 in the morning and all of these weird, scam-like solicitations for creativity would come on like, “You can become a published poet if you pay to be in this book!” She would also submit to other paid programs and, in a way, she was trying to revive being in the middle class by being a creative. Being a published poet and submitting ideas to the QVC, but she didn’t realize that she was being scammed by paying to be considered. Eventually, schizophrenia came and she stopped making this material for money and she was making it as a cathartic practice to keep the voices in her head in control. She basically became Sun Ra, and I discovered Sun Ra way later. She developed this bizarre eccentric cosmology around spirituality, ideas, music, and the drawings became crystalline and abstract like Gertrude Stein. It’s funny because the way that I initially appropriated her work when I got older and graduated from college, and just realized I needed to focus on this without painting, my aesthetic was so much like Sun Ra. I constellated her body of work the same way. I discovered him later, it was so crazy. So when I was a kid, I said [to my mom] I want to help you. My father purchased glitter crayons, pens and art supplies from the drug store, and I wanted to use them so badly but my mom said I needed to learn how to draw and be good at it in order to use those materials. As I got older and more aware, I became an artist independently and started writing these songs and recording on cassette tapes when my friends were over. The older I get I’m like, “Wow, she song-wrote and recorded without desire for an audience.” That’s the most beautiful thing you could ever do, and it’s so authentic. Making art from necessity is nearly impossible. We all have something that we want to attain and I had so much frustration around the racism in painting. The 400 years of patriarchy and weird colonial – just everything about it was so disgusting. I wanted to get ownership back.

Kindness: There are two things that I find interesting there, and I guess they both relate to Sun Ra. Sun Ra’s spirituality and unlimited potential for learning and exploration, but also hand in hand with the necessary capitalism. It was a part of Sun Ra’s work as a composer and work as an arranger, as he needed to make money to fulfill his creativity. But another one is symbolism because now in your work and especially, for example the “Country Ball” series, you said were creating a codex from your mother’s images.

Jacolby: And her music, which is now in a new project.

Kindness: You said there were around 250 symbols in the codex at one moment and there are around 100 acapella tracks as well. There’s kind of, to me, a deeper narrative.

Jacolby: Yes there are around 250 symbols but there are thousands of drawings. I make CGI versions too; I trace drawings and sculpt them into 3D animations. I sculpted around 250 or more.

Kindness: I do feel like there’s a kind of mystical potential, much like in the work of Sun Ra. It’s almost like cross generational – these symbols and objects which have gone from an imagined object to 2D object then to a 3D object.

Jalcolby: Afrofuturism became this big trend a couple years ago, and the only reason why I find it weird is because people started pandering to the symbolism and aesthetics of it as a device, like borrowing it instead of actually falling into it as a necessity. I feel like before that event, it freaks me out that I arrived to similar modes of operating even though I don’t consider myself an Afrofuturist and even though I’m probably the most Afrofuturist. Because the whole point is that those devices are formed escapisms under the prison of American capitalism or global capitalism. Like the trappings of race, the trappings of the pain from being in a world where phenomenology pivots the way you operate. The whole poetic thing about it is that you’re making up a landscape to address adversarial issues through spectacle. It’s kind of like taking back ownership by placing yourself in another landscape where the rules are yours, which is what my mother was doing, how I was translating what she was doing, and how I now make my work and live my life. But for me, when I discovered Hayao Miyazaki and his films, how he deals with the Japanese hardships through the most beautiful, delicate, whimsical sci-fi spectacles that do not attack the issues face forward but the metaphors and missing scenes are threaded throughout. It kind of irked me for a while because there became all of these Afrofuturist conventions. It felt like how like fashion became really trendy and people were appropriating. It just felt like a device where people were like, “Oh, I want to get visible,” and it felt like a trope.

Kindness: I was going to ask about a potentially appropriated thematic at this moment in time: queerness, specifically Black queerness. Let’s take voguing for example: you explain it in a way which, to me, has a real generosity and depth of appreciation. You recently said in another interview that you saw voguing as a form of drawing and accenting space.

Jacolby: Of course. The thing about voguing is that I hate when in the beginning, 10 years ago when I first started voguing, how the institution very lazily tried to put me into a vogue context and used that as a way to fulfill their own agenda. As a Black gay male, that is automatically part of my lexicon. It’s just a movement vernacular because that’s what I grew up around, those are the people I knew. It’s like my background. But also I went to boarding school with a lot of dancers and had to go to recitals every week. Watching William Forsythe choreography and Martha Graham, those are parts that inspire me as well. Movement vernacular is a form of drawing for me because at the end of the day, I am making moving images and I am a person that used to be a figurative painter. In order to make a composition, a pictorial space that has harmony, voguing and modern dance lends itself to the right angles and the shapes to make the kind of images I want to make. When I am voguing or doing modern dance on a green screen, I am referencing Patricia’s drawings. So if I am doing a utilitarian function for thirty minutes, I’m going to have to have as much variation as possible around facilitating that function so it remains interesting and compelling in a video. There has to be mastery around the miming of using object, which is what voguing is. Voguing is about posturing and a flamboyant way of using lipstick, patting your hair down, being fly. So yeah, I’m going to naturally fall into it. It’s the same as Afrofuturism. Basically it’s like I’m going back to the primal, fundamental ways of arriving to a form. The same way that the movement was built, I’m just doing it in a back door way. I’m arriving to that tendency through the back door.

Kindness: Do you feel like there’s an increasing commodification of queerness and blackness? Could it be that these historically marginalized cultures, because of un-nuanced curation, become commodified in a way?

Jacolby: Well, I hate it. I think about it all the time. You know, Gregory Amenoff at Columbia University said an amazing thing at a lecture. He said that everyone will copy you, people copy people, you will copy someone, but whenever you copy, you’re usually stealing something about the artist or maker that is the first thing on their agenda to get rid of; the thing they hate most about themselves. And you usually exaggerate that tendency times ten. And that’s how I feel when there’s a domino effect or a trend going on.

Kindness: We’ve described Patricia’s recordings and her motivation in making them. When did you rediscover the cassette tapes and what point did you realize you could make original music using them?

Jacolby: When I was in graduate school and I quit painting very abruptly, I used my refund check to get Logic 9. I tried to learn it, and I got okay with it, but it was way too much of a movement from much more tactile process to more digital and sonic. It was a difficult process, as I was working with her recordings to make scores for my performance pieces. It wasn’t good, so I quit and I put it on the back burner. Then I had this studio visit with San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to make a commission for them. They wanted me to come up with an idea, and I said, “Well what if I make a concept album? My mom wrote 150 songs and recorded them on a cassette tape.” I wanted to make a concept album that is similar to Daft Punk’s Discovery LP. They made an hour and five minute anime for that album, and I said I wanted to do something similar but make it a techno acid house album that’s really queer, merging mental illness, queerness, and blackness. It’s also an art form because it’s like folk music. House and electronica was like a folk of pop music in a way. It will be an interesting merging of those layers and it feels like a really important academic tribute to the idea of the outsider. I’m making a handmade animation in 3D to it.

I asked Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy if he would help me produce it and we’ve been doing it for two years. I’m super happy about it! It’s been the longest project I’ve worked on because I’ve had a lot going on. Unfortunately my mom passed away in the middle of producing this record, and I had to take a break for myself to recalibrate and reformat myself.

Kindness: You told me you were able to play your mother some of the recordings before her passing. How did she react?

Jacolby: She was so shocked. I’m getting teary eyed thinking about it, but she was really shocked because consumer technology was not around in the ‘90s like it is today. All the resources we had to make this record, to make it sound like something from a big studio in the ‘90s, she just didn’t understand that. Especially living in the woods in South Carolina and still stuck in a time warp because she was schizophrenic. What was magical about it was that as a kid I was said, “Mom, you’re delusional. These songs sound derivative,” and I was kind of dissing them as a child. She’d say, “That’s okay baby, you’re going to be my backup dancer.” She was very adamant about saying she knew she was a successful person. She had this confident bravado about saying this is real content, and it’s going to manifest into the world. And I was so doubtful! The old dictaphone voice, talking it and turning it into this new digital format, a voice that had the urgency to make these songs because they knew they couldn’t put them into the world. I just found the doubt so compelling, to be able to give something so private a public form. And to authentically allow it to remain just as real and guttural but yet polished, with love and compassion, and have complete control. I am her backup dancer.

Kindness: Her backup vocalist as well.

Jacolby: Exactly. And her music video director. I think it’s great. The videos I get to cast, they had people from all facets of life. It’s just funny to be a metanarrative artist and I feel really happy to be one. People may think I make work about my personal history, but no, I create about everything, everyone, and myself. It’s an inception of ideas. I make work about you, me, us, and everything through the lens of my own history.

Kindness: I wondered if you feel that this unlimited sci-fi surrealist paradise that you described is a space where the creative and otherworldly minds like your mother’s, and the queer crazy babies of the world can exist in?

Jacolby: When I was talking about my frustrations with painting, sometimes sculpture, but specifically painting and how when you make a painting, especially as an artist of color, the critics will say, “Why are you using this impressionist stroke and how does it relate to your race?” You have to be apologetic to your history in order to have a voice and you’re kind of puppeteer and pivot around that, and I said well I’m making these virtual reality landscapes and 3D landscapes and synthesizing this bizarre conflation of languages and archives and ideas, and saying that my lexicon is a queer space. And it’s my canon. When you’re the viewer you have to assimilate to my personal phenomenon. I’m making a space for myself for you to adapt to and for you to synthesize. Reclaiming a sense of ownership in a world where we are much more boxed in.

Jacolby Satterwhite is a visual artist, performer and musician who will be premiering new material at the Saint Heron curated Young Members Party at The Met Museum in New York this Thursday, June 22nd. Our DJ for the evening is frequent Saint Heron collaborator Kindness, who sat down to talk with Jacolby in New York.

Watch Jacolby’s Saint Heron exclusive “Country Ball 1989 – 2012 Diptych” above. Satterwhite has previously never shown this particular piece as a diptych on one channel display! Also tune into his newly released single below under the moniker PATRICIA entitled “Rain Vs. Sunshine” featuring a slew of talented artists, Alissa Brianna, his late mother Patricia Satterwhite, Nick Weiss and Patrick Belaga. This track is lifted from Satterwhite’s upcoming concept album/score for his Virtual Reality and 3D animation film.

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