Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Ulysses Jenkins: A Griot for the Electronic Age

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Ulysses Jenkins: A Griot for the Electronic Age

Article excerpt

Throughout Africa, Griots have been the keepers of group history, storyteller/historians who disseminate the cultural myths of their communities. Their narratives are frequently presented in the form of songs and poetry, reflecting the powerful African oral tradition that influences and pervades so much of African American history and expressive culture. In the new century, many African American visual artists have continued the tradition of the Griot. The engaging narrative artworks of such major luminaries including Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden, Lois Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Tom Feelings, Faith Ringgold, and hundreds of other Black artists reflect the tragedies and triumphs of their people in the United States since their forced removal from their African homelands. Their creative efforts inform, educate, and persuade; their storytelling in visual form has made the tradition of African American art a unique feature of American art history.

Viewers of these artworks are accustomed to the traditional forms of visual art: paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs. These genres have been effective in presenting major but often hidden themes and events of African American history to large audiences. Many young people who rarely learn in school about Black resistance figures like Joseph Cinque, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, A. Phillip Randolph, and many others find alternative sources in African American narrative artworks. In the early years of the 21st century, new forms reflecting dramatic technological advances have made art an even more effective mechanism to sustain a more accurate vision of Black history and culture. Increasingly, contemporary artists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have turned to video and performance to express their visions of self and society. These forms expand the boundaries of the visual arts, intensifying an interdisciplinary mode of visual creativity and expression. For African American artists, they provide an exceptional opportunity to reach larger audiences and to extend the tradition of the African Griot into the complex demands and responsibilities of the electronic and information age.

In Southern California, Ulysses Jenkins has set the qualitative standard for these new genres of visual art. A longtime artistic presence in the Los Angeles area, he has combined mural painting, performance art, video production, and music to present his stories and ideas to people of all backgrounds. His multifaceted accomplishments have made him a nationally respected figure whose work has added a dynamic dimension to the excellence of the African American artistic community in the greater Los Angeles area. His prolific exhibition record and his numerous awards and fellowships have generated the high esteem he enjoys among fellow artists and among the educated art public.

Born in 1946, Jenkins has lived most of his life in Southern California, with brief forays over the years to other American locales. When he was ten years old, his family moved to the West Side of the city, settling in an integrated neighborhood. His early experiences there both fostered his understanding of American racism and encouraged the strongly multicultural consciousness informing his artwork throughout his career. Like most young Black children in such environments, Ulysses Jenkins encountered vivid personal racial affronts. He recalls, for example, one dramatic incident where the mother of a white friend told her son that Jenkins would not be allowed in their yard. For African Americans, such experiences usually have far reaching consequences, reminding them of their perpetual "otherness" and marginality in a white dominated society.

The 60s rock and roll culture and the greater spirit of social protest and counter cultural transcendence of that tumultuous era deeply influenced the young Jenkins. In high school, he made art his major focus of study; he found art far preferable to the academic studies where he performed indifferently. …

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