Jazzmen Lee-Johnson

2019 Last Fellow
Interdisciplinary artist
Providence, RI

jazzmenleejohnson.com
j@azzleejohnson

Research at AAS


Click the images above to view details of the first series of CONTRABAND

 

When 17 bullets darted like metallic mosquitoes on the 2300 block of Denison Street in Baltimore, Koby, also known as Kodak for his photographic smile, was fatally shot at age 20. Dorian, 24, a self-proclaimed “trapaholic”, is serving his third year of many in a correctional facility. Kris, 33, just left federal prison. He is going back to school, but worries his admission may be withdrawn after a background check.

These men are my cousins; they have all been implicated in drug, gun, or fraud offenses. Their reality haunts me as a specter of slavery and colonialism. My work is driven by a yearning to understand how our current circumstance is tethered to the trauma of the past in an effort to forge a new path forward.

 

 

My project, CONTRABAND, visually explores how the industry of slavery laid the blueprint for drug crimes, gang culture, and mass incarceration in Black communities. This project draws from research at the American Antiquarian Society where I used ephemera and manuscripts to visualize the economics of the transatlantic slave trade. I am working to unpack historical connections visually; sometimes words fail me. CONTRABAND will be the culmination of this research and analysis in the form of large scale silkscreen prints, woodblock prints, and animation.

During the Civil War those who escaped slavery and made their way to Union territory were considered “contraband”, or “illegal goods.” I learned that 19th century policies such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that escape slaves be returned to their “owners”, and the Slave and Black Codes, which restricted literacy, gathering in groups, participating in business, etc set the precedent for how Black bodies are policed, surveilled, and limited today. I reflected upon what offenses Black folks get charged for today, and how those charges relate to the concept of contraband.

I imagined my cousins.

 

 

I examined colonial and 19th century currencies and wondered how industries of commodity and value are created in a new society. I explored the ways Black bodies were valued in account books and slave ship manifests. In addition to new currencies, highly valued objects such as guns, gin, and fabric were traded in equal weights for a soon to be enslaved individual. I made connections to the lives of many young men of color who continue to exchange their lives for guns, liquor or drugs. I would be remiss to simplify the connections of the present to this historical context: the relationships are multilayered intricacies of power, privilege and systems which will form my visual representation of CONTRABAND.

I begin with the experiences of my family members and work outward. I see the ways my family wages battle with the prison industrial complex, drugs, and poverty as paradigmatic of experiences shared by other people of color. Through CONTRABAND I seek to unpack the ways that sentencing and state sponsored violences are intimately connected to the technologies of the past to continue a conversation of how to build a new way forward.

 

 

 

About the Fellow

Jazzmen Lee-Johnson is a visual artist, scholar, composer, and curator. Her practice centers on the interplay of animation, printmaking, music, and dance, informed by a yearning to understand how our current circumstance is tethered to the trauma of the past. Through her visual, sonic, and movement investigations across time and technology she disrupts and asserts ideas of history, body, liberation, and otherness. She received her BFA in Film, Animation, and Video at RISD, her MA in Public Humanities at Brown University, and a heavy dose of education working with youth in Baltimore, South Africa, and New York City. She has curated exhibitions at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Artist Proof Studio and the ABSA Art Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa; RISD Museum; and Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, where she was also a Public History of Slavery Fellow. She is currently a music mentor to teens at New Urban Arts and the inaugural Artist in Residence at the Rhode Island Department of Health utilizing the arts to confront health disparities and shape health equity. She is the 2020 Artist Fellow at the RISD Museum, creating work in response to the collection. She is always eager to radically reimagine the possibilities of the present by disturbing fixed notions of the past, and conjuring a future that might come to be.

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