Masud Olfani, Elder, 2020, David T. Howard School project, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Russell Kilgore
A Conversation with Masud Olufani
with Gail O'Neill
Masud Olfani, Elder,(detail)2020, David T. Howard School project, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy the artist
Masud Olfani, Elder,(detail)2020,
David T. Howard School project, Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo courtesy the artist
Masud Olufani is a multidisciplinary artist who defies characterization. Best known for his monumental public art installations and sculptures, he was in the Studio Artist Program at The Contemporary in 2016 in Atlanta where he is based. If there is a recurring theme in Olufani’s output, it would be his role as a cultural memory-keeper. He is interested in the imprint our shared past has made on the landscape and its inhabitants.
As new alliances are forged in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, cross-cultural conversations about race are evolving, and the significance of long-standing monuments to the Confederacy is being called into question. Olufani’s art practice has put him at the forefront of this long-overdue national discussion.
Olufani talked about a defining moment from his childhood that informs his work today, his blood tie to an archetype of American slavery, and the human body as a metaphor for how humanity was built for oneness.
Masud Olufani in his studio with the photo of John Jones his maternal great-great grandfather. "He was an enslaved person"
Gail O’Neill: Was there a defining moment that triggered your interest in history and desire to understand how the past informs the present?
Masud Olufani: I think, as young person growing up in the New York, New Jersey area, I developed an interest very early on in how history informs our present. A very powerful moment for me was the television premiere of the original Roots miniseries in 1977. Watching the historical narrative of writer Alex Haley’s family reinforced the importance of the ancestral line and how that reality informs who we are. When I began reading in earnest, during frequent train rides in and around New York City, I was naturally drawn to historical non-fiction. There was something deeply gratifying about mining the past to acquire context for the present. In regards to the African American experience specifically, there is always the haunting reality of erasure at the heart of slavery system that actively sought to divest the enslaved of memory. The reclaiming of that connection to a fragmented history takes on a deeper resonance. It is a process of psychological, spiritual, and cultural restoration.
GO: Who was John Jones? You have a photo of him on your studio wall. Do you consider him a muse?
MO: John Jones is my maternal great-great grandfather. He was an enslaved person who picked Sea Island cotton in South Carolina. He is a touchstone of inspiration for me because of his direct connection to the slavery system. In spite of the dehumanization and objectification that was such a fundamental dimension of his imposed reality, he lived to be one hundred and ten years old. I keep his picture on my studio wall to remind me what perseverance in the face of extreme brutality looks like.
GO: Following the killing of George Floyd, there was a resurgence of racial/social/political consciousness, the depth of which America has not experienced in 50 years. Based on your exploration of memory and meaning as an artist, are you optimistic about the sustainability of this movement? Or is collective amnesia a default setting for human beings?
MO: I maintain an abiding belief in the inevitable maturity of a society struggling through the long night of its collective adolescence. In the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Ahmed Arbery, Sandra Bland and others, I have seen a sustained outrage from a diverse cohort of citizens determined to come to terms with enduring legacy of institutionalized racism. Imbedded within the various iterations of civil disobedience is an echoing demand to transform our society in fundamental ways that acknowledge our interconnectedness and our interdependence. Something has shifted in our collective consciousness. We seem to have passed a Rubicon, beyond which there is no going back to "business as usual.” Ultimately, humanity is designed for oneness. The physiology of the body with its assortment of cells and organs, works collectively to sustain this extraordinary living "machine.” The corpus of humanity is comprised of billions of individuals who may be likened to the cells and organs of a body. Those constituent components must progressively learn to function in harmony to preserve the integrity of the whole. It is the next logical and inevitable stage in our collective maturity. An essential component of this work, and a sign of growth, is our ability to confront reality and face the complexity of the nation’s history. All sustainable work that seeks enduring, redemptive transformation must divest itself of the poison of deception and obfuscation, and embrace the cleansing power of truth. This is courageous and demanding work; the work of a humanity realizing its noble destiny.
GO: The depiction of disembodied arms, hands and feet is a recurring motif in your public art installations, sculpture and works on paper. What do they represent to you?
MO: I’m interested in the fragmentation of memory and of history. How our past, and our present, particularly as it pertains to African Americans, is always only partially seen by the larger society. The disembodied body parts that reoccur in my work represent this fragmented reality for me. They are the physical marker of an identity partially eclipsed by the enduring racialized caste system.
Masud Olufani, Pipeline, 2019 school desk; clock and speaker; aqua resin; handcuffs; powdered graphite; dictionary; audio file Dimensions are variable; photography courtesy of Russell Kilgore
Masud Olufani,Root/Anchor, 2016 resin; woven dread locks; steel anchor; 2016 photos courtesy of Russell Kilgore
Masud Olufani,Root/Anchor (detail), 2016 resin; woven dread locks; steel anchor; 2016 photos courtesy of Russell Kilgore
Masud Olufani is an Atlanta based actor, mixed media artist, and writer whose studio practice is rooted in the discipline of sculpture. He is a graduate of Morehouse College, and The Savannah College of Art and Design where he earned an M.F.A. in sculpture in 2013. Masud has exhibited his work in group and solo shows nationally and internationally. The artist has completed residencies at The Vermont Studio Center; The Hambidge Center for Arts and Sciences; and Creative Currents in Portobello, Panama. He is a 2020 recipient of a South Arts Cross Sector grant; 2017 Southern Arts Prize State Fellow; a recipient of a 2015 and 2018 Idea Capital Grant; a Southwest Airlines Art and Social Engagement grant; and a recipient of 2015-16’ MOCA GA Working Artist Project Grant.
Gail O’Neill writes about arts and culture. A native New Yorker, Gail divides her time between Atlanta and Manhattan.