BY Ekene Ijeoma AND Evan Moffitt in Interviews | 15 SEP 21

Ekene Ijeoma on ‘Trying to Portray Hidden Things’

Evan Moffitt speaks to the interdisciplinary artist about his recent group exhibition at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, and how the multidimensionality of data informs his diverse practice

BY Ekene Ijeoma AND Evan Moffitt in Interviews | 15 SEP 21

Evan Moffitt: Your work Deconstructed Anthems: Nebraska 12 (2015) [2021], which is currently on view in ‘All Together, Amongst Many’ at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, removes notes from ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at an interval based on the local rate by which Black people are more likely than white people to be incarcerated. Can you tell me more about the technical underpinnings of that project? How was it first conceived?

Ekene Ijeoma: The first time the work was performed was in December 2017, but it’s dated 2015 because that’s the date of the most recent national incarceration data. I make the work site-specific for every city where it is performed. In Nebraska, Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. I doubled that number to lengthen the duration of the work, so 12 is the number of times the anthem is repeated. The actual rate at which the notes are removed is based on national incarceration rates from 1950 to now because it’s a nationwide issue. Since 1950 the rate has increased significantly and I use that same rate of increase over time to remove notes. I developed a custom music composition software to generate the score. This is the first time I’ve presented machine-plotted ink drawings of the score itself, so you can see the notes being removed as time progresses. The 12th and last drawing has no notes at all.

Essentially each note that’s removed is a Black or brown person that was systemically removed from their community and their family. So, I’m just doing the same thing the system is doing, except I’m doing it to sheet music. This process creates the same instability in the anthem that it creates in these communities.

‘All Together, Amongst Many: Reflections on Empathy’, 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha; photo: Colin Conces.

EM: I found that really powerful – to see how quickly ‘land of the free’ disappears from the song, for instance. The silence of the final score was especially affecting. Conversely, in A Counting (Omaha) [2021–ongoing] there is a multitude of voices: the languages of nearly 100 Omahans. How did that series come about?

EI: It started in New York City with an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York called ‘Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers’ [2019–20]. This was around the time of the 2020 census. Along with my collaborators in the Poetic Justice Group, I was thinking about what it means to be counted – and not counted – and how the census historically has misrepresented the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the US. So, 100 represents a statistical whole, and since we’re working in the context of statistics, what if we were to count to 100 with as many voices in as many languages as we could? The more people participate, the more it becomes an accurate representation of that city or the US. The work is ongoing and we’re still doing outreach to more communities. There are over 600 languages spoken in New York; I would love to get closer to that. 

Similarly, the Omaha version is still ongoing. There are 87 languages spoken in Omaha, and we only have about a quarter of them. So many midwestern cities are diverse hubs for immigrant populations, but whether those populations are visible is another matter. On all the hotlines for the various editions we’ve created, there’s one final question that asks you to share something from your language and your experience. So many people have said, ‘Thanks for the opportunity to share my language, to speak my language’. I think that’s so powerful and recalls the lack of opportunities we have to speak different languages here in the US.

EM: Your work also grapples with accessibility in different ways: your public installations Heartfelt #2 [2019–ongoing] at the Kennedy Center and Breathing Pavilion [2021] in Downtown Brooklyn invited viewers to activate the sculptures with their touch and breath, respectively.

EI: I think about accessibility on so many levels. How do people who are deaf or hard of hearing experience the work? In A Counting they can experience it through the text graphics in the video, and in Deconstructed Anthems they can experience it through the drawing. With A Counting, we received emails from people in the deaf community asking if we could include sign language. It’s in development, but we will have a sign language edition that includes all the different signs that are used in the US. We know of about 35. We’re working with a deaf copywriter and a deaf coordinator to do community outreach for that. In the installation-based public artworks, I think about how people in wheelchairs experience the work, so I adjust the spacing between the elements so they’re able to move freely. The two artworks you mentioned also only require the presence of your body. Breathing Pavilion was just about breathing deeply together, and Heartfelt was about physically exchanging energy. The work connects light poles by using your body as a conductor. The fact that we are up to 60 percent water and thus electricity can travel through us is something that everyone has in common, but that we often don’t have the opportunity to see or experience. We all must breathe, too.

Ekene Ijeoma, Breathing Pavilion (2021). Photography credit: Kris Graves.
Ekene Ijeoma, Breathing Pavilion, 2021. Courtesy: the artist; photography: Kris Graves.

EM: Borrowing a phrase from your description of your proposal to replace the Robert E. Lee Monument in New Orleans, do you consider these public artworks ‘living monuments’?

EI: I’m working on a large, nationwide living monument, which is what I called my proposal, a ‘living monument’. We usually think of monuments as a figure or group of figures and I’m trying to portray something more abstract, to distil ideas down to their essence. There are so many ideas embodied in the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ as a national anthem. There are so many ideas embodied in the census and counting. With Breathing Pavilion, I’m trying to get down to what a meditative space for communal breathing might look like. Maybe a monument for a new era is a monument to an idea rather than a person – but that doesn’t mean it’s not personal.

Traditionally, with social practice you go somewhere and work with a community to create something. I’m thinking about the community and then creating something and inviting them to participate. It’s sort of backwards. But I relate to the communities I’m making work with. I’m part of Deconstructed Anthems, I’m part of the Black community and in solidarity with other people of colour in the US. With A Counting, I’m first-generation Nigerian American and in solidarity with a larger immigrant community. I’m expanding on different aspects of my life in ways that become a shared experience.

Ekene Ijeoma, Deconstructed Anthems: Nebraska 12 (2015), 2021, software-generated score, incarceration data, piano, and machine-plotted ink drawings. Courtesy: the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha

EM: Can you talk about how data plays such a significant role in your work?

EI: For a long time, I’ve been trying to navigate the space between facts and feelings. Deconstructed Anthems is based on data, but the silences in the work are what give people space to think about what else might be happening there. Most of the time we see a social issue being portrayed, it’s through photography, film and other representational visual mediums that involve a frame with predefined dimensions. But data is multidimensional, and through data you can see outside the frames of those mediums. So, although data informs a lot of the work, that isn’t where it ends. With A Counting, I wanted to speculate on something that doesn’t currently exist. Yes, all these languages are currently spoken in NYC, but there’s no place where you can go to hear all of them at the same time. The work speculates on what a truly united society would sound like, and data allows me to visualize or sonify that. I’m trying to portray hidden things.

All Together, Amongst Many: Reflections on Empathy’ is on view at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, until 19 September. 

Main image: Ekene Ijeoma, Breathing Pavilion, 2021. Courtesy: the artist; photography: Kris Graves.

Ekene Ijeoma is an artist, assistant professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT and director of Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab.

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.