On Amber Art’s Urban Space Jockeys

This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Bettina Escauriza in order to reflect on one of the projects developed for Organize Your Own by Amber Art & Design Collective.

(Photos by Taji Nahl)

On Amber Art’s Urban Space Jockeys

by Bettina Escauriza

  1. The Photograph

Two Black men in lawn jockey outfits holding lanterns stand in symmetrical poses, as statues would, in front of a food store on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. The cold interior light from the store spills out onto the street, casting blue shadows on the faces of the men, which are otherwise obscured by night’s darkness. A giant decal of fresh seafood pasted on the left window dominates the scene: bright red crab legs create a downward curve next to a blush pink shrimp, pale potatoes, and a lone broccoli on the bottom left corner, all held within the embrace of an aluminum dish. Inside the store we see a certificate of some kind (perhaps of compliance) pasted on a clear plexi-glass partition, a juice dispenser filled with purple liquid, and in the far distance, the bright fluorescence of a bug light. But what is easy to miss in this photo is the third person standing just beyond the threshold of the large windows, inside the store, their face visible next to the end of the crab legs, partially bisected by the black metal border that holds the panes of glass in place, their body obscured by a large orange vinyl sign advertising a food special. To us, it’s just a floating head really.

The image described is one in a series of photographs that document the performance piece entitled Urban Space Jockeys by Amber Art and Design. Though the image was constructed to follow a symmetrical/bilateral composition, it unintentionally follows the Rule of Odds. The three subjects form a strange triangle, oscillating between what is intentional and what is incidental, creating a composition in which the third person in the background is at the apex and center of the image. The strong architectural, geometric lines create a heavy symmetry—a repeated pattern wherein the objects in the individual quadrants formed by the architecture break the rigid symmetry and generate motion for the eyes. The parallel positioning of the subjects constructs a strong sense of weighted balance, really appropriate for a pair of statues that that would flank an entrance—in this case, the statues flank the entrance to the obscured history of the roles of Black people and Black resistance to oppression in West Philadelphia.

In their performance piece Urban Space Jockeys, Amber Art engages the complex and hidden history of Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. For the piece, Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez dressed and posed as lawn jockeys, and were photographed as the statues in different locations. Lawn jockeys have a complicated, layered, and truthfully, unknown, origin. From the legend of Jocko Graves—the Black boy who inspired George Washington by waiting for him and subsequently freezing to death, lantern in hand, along the banks of the Delaware during the Revolutionary War—to the anonymous “faithful groomsman,” or the black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. By some accounts these statues were used as signal posts for stops on the Underground Railroad, when a cloth of a certain color tied to the arm of the jockey meant this house was safe for African Americans, who were fleeing slavery in the South.[1] In Urban Space Jockeys, Amber Art is referencing all of these histories by becoming the lawn jockeys and reinserting that particular narrative of Black history and the Black body into the contemporary space of the city.

Though by its nature, the Urban Space Jockeys performance is external and meant to be consumed by spectators, there is a deep internality to the work that viewers must excavate for deeper meaning. A profound truth of the work is that many aspects of it are only knowable to those who share the experiences of Blackness in this society that have been constructed around the violent and genocidal enslavement and oppression of Black people. The tension between what is knowable and unknowable in the work— depending on who experiences it—is a powerful antidote in a society that seeks to flatten and normalize everything and fix history in place as a story that can be told completely and, that in turn, can be fully understood. Urban Space Jockeys does not function as a didactic history lesson, but rather as an organic encounter with the public, if they are lucky enough to be out there during one of the performances, or view its documentation in an art gallery. For those of us who are familiar with the racist narrative and history attached to the lawn jockey as an object produced by a racist society, the first layer of the Urban Space Jockeys performance is readily apparent, but the ways in which this history is intertwined with the history of Lancaster Avenue lives in a deeper place.

 

  1. The Avenue

Though there is nothing to mark the horizon, the severe angle of Lancaster Avenue is very palpable. The Avenue is loud and alive. During peak hours, a steady stream of people walk down the sidewalk and in and out of businesses, as the flutter of their conversations blends with the buzzing clamor of traffic. Lancaster Avenue has a rich history—originally it is said to have been an ancient Lenni­Lenape road, before becoming the first turnpike, connecting Philadelphia to Lancaster, in 1795. As the first major paved road, it helped to transform the city by easing the flow of goods and commerce that came in on barges through the Schuylkill, then moving through West Philadelphia to Lancaster and beyond.[2] Eventually, Lancaster Avenue became linked to the Lincoln Highway, the first-ever intercontinental highway in the United States, a single line stretching across the land, connecting Philadelphia to San Francisco.[3] Several houses that were stops on the Underground Railroad were located on the Avenue, so just below the surface of the present there is a powerful history of solidarity and resistance to oppression.

But, as one walks down Lancaster Avenue, this history is invisible. What Michel de Certeau wrote of New York is also true of Philadelphia (at least in this part of town)— “Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future.”[4] The present’s unrelenting devotion to becoming the future effectively silences the past. Time is a collection of surfaces that builds the sedimentary rock of the present, and in the orogeny of passing time, things get lost.

There is a certain degree of inevitability to this process of muting the past, but there are processes of power at play that shape the muting. Thus, if the history of the resistance to African enslavement, along with other histories, is hidden under the steady bustle of working-class neighborhood commerce, then it happens in service of some kind of logic. Some would say that it is not so nefarious, but I would argue that in a city so obsessed with its own past and its relationship to the beginnings of this nation, the long process that hides the hands and intentions of those who built the present is obscured in this particular narrative for a reason.

Urban Space Jockeys is an excavation and presentation of the image of the lawn jockey—both as a historical site of the oppression of Black bodies and of the complex archaeology that links these lawn jockeys to the Underground Railroad, while at the same time actively pointing to the current and virulent process of gentrification that seeks to consume Philadelphia in the coming years. The performance aims to engage the past in dialogue with the present to interrogate the future as it looms in the horizon.

In an interview I conducted with the artists, they explained that their aim is to amplify the voices of their community members by telling the history of Black Philadelphia. They are members of and live and work in marginalized communities that exist in a state of constant vulnerability by the forces of racism and capitalism. Through their public interventions, Amber Art seeks to engage with the public in a dialogue about the Black body, both its history and its present. By forging spaces for dialogue, they engage with people in neighborhoods who don’t get to access art through conventional means of a museum or a gallery. Amber Art uses performance as a way of posing questions about race and power, and to bring to the surface Black narratives of resistance to oppression that have been silenced. There is a deep, resonating healing and corrective power to this work, as it actively constructs a world in which that which has been silenced can speak. Their work asks questions about what survives in the collective memory of the colonized, the enslaved, and how these processes unmake, make, create, and recreate the word we live in every day.

The intersection of art and activism is rife with contradiction, as are all situations in which power is simultaneously manifested and contested. These contradictions cannot, nor should they, be avoided—they should be actively engaged and deconstructed to see what other formations may arise from questioning and making. As Walter Benjamin wrote: “Our life, it can be said, is a muscle strong enough to contract the whole of historical time. Or, to put it differently, the genuine conception of historical time rests entirely upon the image of redemption.”[5] And perhaps, despite all our deconstruction and construction, we don’t get to fix things—maybe we just make air holes, and that’s okay.

Footnotes:

1 http://www.antiquetrader.com/features/history_of_the_lawn_jockey_unclear.

http://www.phila.gov/CityPlanning/plans/Area%20Plans/LancasterAv.pdf.

3  http://lincolnhighway.jameslin.name.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), p. 91.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 479.

Bettina Escauriza is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia, born in Asuncion, Paraguay. She received her BFA in Sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute, and an MFA in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her work deals with a broad range of issues including urbanism, anarchism, indigenous issues, immigrant experience, environmental justice, and feminism, frequently expressed through mixed media and actions. Among these, she organized a series of conferences around prison issues and the abolition of the prison industrial complex together with Native American groups and others in 2008. She has also herded sheep and built outhouses in Black Mesa, Arizona, as a way to support Diné elders resisting relocation. She is a fellow at Slought. tightrope-walker.tumblr.com

 

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