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Haunted Geographies: The Living Work of Kenyatta A.C Hinkle

Sometimes other people pack your baggage. Artist Kenyatta A.C Hinkle unpacks it. She was the youngest artist included in the 2012 Hammer biennial, Made in LA, and whose practice runs the gamut from performance and video, to writing, painting, and collage.

The Kentifrica Project was an example of this intersect. The work presented at the Hammer was possibly the artist's largest ongoing project where Hinkle's many inter-disciplinary skills came into play, creating a multi-layered project of engagement, bringing in outsiders -- not just as viewers -- but collaborators and participants. Her artist statement, from her website, lays out her practice:

Hinkle reconstructs a Kentifrican identity that invites a critical engagement of the intersections of: collective vs. personal histories, Diaspora, migration, immigration, cross-culturalism and issues of geography. Through the embodiment of various voices and modes of address, Hinkle examines what happens to bodies in transit and how they are contextualized culturally depending upon historical hegemonic signifiers of race and culture.

In practice, the Kentifrica project involved the creation of history and a new language of myth making. She set up a storefront in an old rowhouse in Dallas's third ward, where Hinkle fed people traditional Kentrifican cuisine, and invited children to play Kentrifican instruments, which were handmade. She also delivered personal histories written in the invented Kentrifican language. On paper, the script takes on a beauty reminiscent of early ink calligraphy, with an oceanic seaweed feel, letters lapping in a gentle current. Hinkle also created a map of Kentrifica, rendered with earth-toned beauty and a look of antiquity, as if the object has been laying in a rain soaked attic for two hundred years, waiting to be exhumed.

Raised in Kentucky, Hinkle, like many artists engaged in political questions of identity and femininity, carries the torch of her mother. "My mother is an artist, I won't say was an artist, she is an artist, but wasn't allowed to 'be' an artist. She went to school through busing and was bussed into a predominately white school. Her art teacher would rip up her drawings and say she wasn't good, things like that. I inherited her talent and so did my brother. I just always felt like a fish in water, drawing and I was really interested in writing at an early age."

The artist is lovely in the way that lovely people are, a wide smile, spontaneous laugh and an ease of physicality, hugging warmly upon meeting, gently handing pieces of art over to be inspected, pausing and making eye contact when something in the studio becomes of interest, then explaining in clean, non-condescending language what the piece means to her. It's easy to imagine her skill with young viewers and those unsure how to approach the work, while visiting new communities.

As Hinkle grew, so did her creative interests, leading her to after-school art programs and other outlets for of creativity, eventually landing at an arts community center where her mother was a receptionist. "I would go and take art classes while she was at work, then we would go home together. So if it wasn't for this after school community setting I wouldn't be an artist. So really, it was my mother."

This interest in fostering community and the positive impact of public arts has stayed with Hinkle, whose performance work incorporates this ethos. An grant from the Pasadena Arts Council will allow her to continue her social practice, bringing the Kentrifican experience to a new set of participants. Hinkle will be provided a storefront where she will engage in conversations of culture, ethnicity and social geography, all while feeding the community traditional Kentrifican cuisine, making crafts, playing Kentrifican instruments and again, getting to the place where social change is most important; in person, up front and with action.

"At the end of my undergraduate experience, I got my BFA in painting from MICA, I quickly realized that my work was expanding to include performances, head dresses, I was working with fiber and beading things." This comfort with not just juggling visual, philosophical and performance driven endeavors has been a reoccurring theme. This balance, the call to action, and need to be heard on her own terms, remains in many ways the driving force to continuing creating.

"I'm a full time artist, full time mom, a full time arts administrator, I wear a lot of hats." Hinkle, a new mother, is currently processing the experience of that transition. "Now that I'm post partum, all these ideas about what it means to inhabit a black female body are coming to me. Navigating geographies, things I have always been interested in but while I was pregnant felt like the biological epitome of my body was going to work. Inhabiting that body which for so many people already holds mysteriousness, repulsion, desire, these things that are projected onto you, and I feel that way already inhabiting a black female body, and then having those two things collide was really intense."

The result of this experience is currently being funneled into the ongoing project, The Uninvited Series, in which Hinkle uses found and collected late 19th century postcards documenting so-called African life, all of which were taken, manufactured and distributed by French Colonialists. Many of the women depicted have been arranged into sexualized, or "Native" positions, their faces portraying a deep level of discomfort. Using other found images, ink drawings and water stain, Hinkle creates clouds of disease emanating from the bodies of the objectified, drawing a visual connection between the illness of misinformation that was reproduced and spread as these postcards made their away around the world. The irony of course is that the postcards in their original conception and execution say more about the actual 'other' present, behind the camera, rather than the women portrayed in front of it.

"Your body is contextualized by whoever is looking at it. I grew up in Louisville Kentucky, and it was very segregated, a lot of racism, obviously, but internal racism as well. My nickname was 'Little Africa' by people in my own community who I'm a couple shades darker than, things like that. African booty scratcher, myths, essentially."

This early inauguration into semantics left an impression on Hinkle, who in 2009, enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts where she received an MFA in Critical Studies. How these myths originate, perpetrate and indoctrinate is for Hinkle the place where language takes bodily shape, creating psychological violence against and within.

"That's how I feel about language," she says, gesturing to a work from the Kentrifica project, a blackboard written on with white chalk. Words she has been pushed against in life either to describe or articulate prejudices are highlighted in glaring brightness and listed in alphabetical order. Of course, chalk itself is malleable, also erasing and undoing it's past, and yet still leaving a smear of itself behind.

"I was talking about this the other day, the thing with 'sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.' I don't believe in that. Words are weapons and I'm really interested in the business of naming. How do we name, how do we deem people as exotic? How do we treat them? How are we the exotic seeing the exotic in someone else? And that piece," states Hinkle, gesturing to the blackboard, "is called 'How I learned My ABCs: F is for Forgotten' and F is not up there." Insinuating with lack that forgetting is often easier said than done. Or to use a phrase coined by author Toni Morrison in her lecture/essay about race in Melville's, "Moby Dick," the "unspeakable things unspoken." In other words, what is not seen is sometimes more visible than what is.

"So it's a personal narrative navigating this twenty-six letter rule, seeing what you have access to through language, because language is how we have access to the world. Depending on how well you can use language determines how far you'll go. So this was my language, my alphabet." With a list of epitaphs mixed in with other so-called benign words, such as "raisin, maid or vacant" the viewer is pulled into the resounding chorus of repetition and manipulation, showing with immersion, how this is not only Hinkle's ABC's but within the United States and other parts of the western world, the predominant narrative. Language is given the weight of burden for those who are labeled by race related coding. The fewer words used to describe a person allows for a wider door toward self-discovery and personal naming. When one is able to name ourselves, shedding the nature of what is projected onto our bodies, one takes pride and ownership of that self. Identity becomes a source of power rather than one of shame. Having the privilege to name ourselves, however, is the issue at hand for Hinkle. Not everyone is given the luxury of blending in with the dominant narrative, of constructing an identity free from existing myths.

"This is where the Kentrifica project comes in, it's a contested geography and I think it's easier for people to understand or present it that way, if I say, I'm a southern person and it's Kentucky and Africa put together. At first it appears that way but what I realized was that it was something much deeper, this is an actual identity for me, an actual place outside of myself, outside of my experiences that other people can collaborate on, to create this Kentrifican identity. It's bigger than my narrative, bigger than an African American narrative. Because everyone knows what it means to be othered, to not have your story told. I always say this, even white people aren't white, all of it is a constructed identity. All of it."

Hinkle cites her great uncle Tony for providing her with the mantra to her practice: "Look where it ain't."

"How can something be where it ain't? There are some places you think you'll feel right at home, and then you're reminded that no, you cannot sit down." This interest in looking where it ain't also includes creating in the lack. Building a narrative where one has been denied, and affirming through personal ownership the power of language, of writing new stories that better fit the self, however one defines it.

With her current show "Say it isn't so" at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York, Hinkle continues to fearlessly address difficult issues surrounding race, class, subjectivity and objectification. "I'm interested in how we are chained to the past and bring that into the present." In the piece Double Headed Noose, an instrument used in the Kentrifican narrative, yet clearly representational of a Jim Crow era noose used in lynching, Hinkle hangs the rope at neck level and sideways rather than vertically, to show the tension between what is forgotten but always present.

"If you look at it after a while it becomes an infinity symbol." It is this confrontational element that links Hinkle's work to it's own historical art narrative. Crediting Adrian Piper and Kara Walker as major influences, Hinkle understands the importance of the messy stuff, in pushing people beyond their comfort zones in order to illicit philosophical change. "There's no real outlet for the past, no walking away from it, washing it off. That's how I feel about history, were all haunted by it. We are master and slave, even in our blood."

Making sense of that dichotomy and facing it head on, Hinkle illustrates both the need and importance of work that addresses these issues. To speak to the unspeakable, and bring them screaming, willingly or not into the glare of the present where new generations can try to reconfigure how history got so mangled, and how to forgive; not by saying sorry, but by asking, why and how.

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