p1010016.jpgOtabenga Jones and Associates is a Houston-based artist collective including Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans, and Robert A. Pruitt. These four artists, whose work has been featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial (both individually and under the auspices of Otabenga Jones and Associates), create installations that question our current perceptions of of African American history and experience, and open new spaces for discussing these issues.

Recently, the two WITS classes I work with at Jesse H. Jones High School visited the Otabenga Jones and Associates installation, “Lessons from Below,” at The Menil Collection art museum. It was a thrill to watch the students process feelings of awe, outrage, and intrigue as they explored the installation, which includes a classroom space, a library, a plethora of artwork and documents from The Menil Collection archives, a video display of scholars discussing various topics associated with the exhibition’s themes, and large displays of items from the artist collective’s own amalgamation of objects depicting African Americans in popular culture.

Fellow WITS writer and musician Jesús Arturo Ávila-Escamilla and I played examples of Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word poetry for the students, then encouraged them respond to the Otabenga Jones and Associates installation in a similar fashion. Here is a collaborative work created by several students, which includes fragments of text found in the objects on display:

Lessons from Below
John Johnson was a champ
and he was a bus driver.
Grow an Afro, man, and no one
will ever call you boy.
The scribbles on the wall are
like my vision of the future.
You can kill the revolutionary,
but you can’t kill the revolution.
He keeps his weapon close to his heart,
but he doesn’t know why.
Está my pequeño para tener
un cuete.

What is black?
Black is beautiful.
Truth is on its way.
Three different scars mean
three different things for
three different cultures.

Through dealing directly with the potentially difficult and racially-charged subject matter of this installation, these students and I learned, together, new ways to interact and understand each other. I hope that we’ll all put the lessons we learned from Otabenga Jones and Associates into practice, revisiting our shared histories while creating new futures.

posted by Tria Wood, Writers in the Schools
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