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A New Exhibition Explores the Social Critique of Funny Art

Sometimes things hurt so bad, you have to laugh.

Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent

Lyndon Barrois, Beverly Hills PoC (Yeah I buy my art there), 2016. All images courtesy of Arts.Black and the artists

In 1967, musician and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte presented the ABC special A Time for Laughter: A Look at Negro Humor in America. It was an evening of sketch comedy that came at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, featuring comedy greats like Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor, and through humor showed how Jim Crow was a sham. The program underscored the long tradition of comedians telling jokes as a form of social critique. Now, Arts.Black has curated Empowerpoint at The Luminary in St. Louis, Missouri, taking up that tradition by exploring how a group of contemporary artists use memes, videos, and installation art to make social inequality their punch lines.

Empowerpoint is a fictional, dysfunctional ‘African American software package,’ which is referenced in the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty,” explains Taylor Renee Aldridge, who co-curated the exhibition with Jessica Lynne, to The Creators Project. “Prior to reading the novel, we were ruminating heavily on humor and comedic relief as a way of grappling with trauma and also as a form of social commentary and critique.”

“The exhibition is centered around these themes," she says. "Through the use of new media we feature artists and works that incorporate comedy, satire, and intersecting oppressions.”

Lynne adds, “Empowerpoint is our way of mining this urgency and acknowledging the role humor can have in navigating these overwhelming concerns. We are also Internet kids and as that relationship evolves, we’ve been inspired by the way humor presents itself in the digital age.”

Lyndon Barrois, Beverly Hills PoC (This is the cleanest, nicest police car I've ever been in), 2016

Inspired by the pervasive meme and GIF culture of the internet, the exhibition explores how social commentary on social media platforms often are packaged as jokes. Lyndon Barrois’ Meme series, Beverly Hills PoC, for instance, appropriates stills from the film, Beverly Hills Cop, to present the protagonist Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) as a young artist trying to gain entry into the Los Angeles art scene. “The work interrogates the condition of difference in both art and world contexts: does Axel meet resistance because of his incongruous visual identity, or his transgressive means of investigation?” asks Barrois, whose project is updated on a dedicated Instagram page. “Likewise, does an artist of color face critical limitations based on perceptions of their identity, or their use of marginalized subject matter. Here lies a humorous parallel between detective work and artistic ascendance, through the acts of subversion, failure, ingenuity and the forming of new relationships.” One meme shows Foley saying, to two white police officers from the back of a police car, “This is the nicest, cleanest police car I ever been in.”

Installation view: WORK/PLAY (Kevin & Danielle McCoy), The Truth is Said in Jest, 2016

There are also several other works that explore race and identity through humor. Work/Play’s The Truth Is Said In Jest mixes audio clips of comedians Dave Chappelle, Aries Spears, and Paul Mooney joking about race with 1950s cartoons and depictions of actors in blackface. Soheila Azadi and Liz Cambron’s experimental music video, Witch Hunt, playfully uses humor, camp, and horror to explore the narratives surrounding Muslim women. Similarly, Marcellus Armstrong’s video work, An Ambiguous Narrative of Overdramatic Reenactments, explores the ways dominant narratives often led to misrepresentation and erasure. Using Destiny’s Child’s 1999 album The Writing’s on the Wall as the video's soundtrack, Armstrong intercuts transition shots of crime documentaries, scenes from the film Set It Off, and newsreels, such as the police dash cam footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest, “to draw attention to the scenes and narrative techniques we often overlook.” Armstrong says the video work “captures the movement of the invisible, and sets it to a soundtrack that demands visibility.”

Installation view: Simone & Max, Waiting, audio visual installation, 2016

Empowerpoint also features two video works by artist duo Simone and Max. Their audiovisual installation, Cruisin Alaska, uses dark humor to bring visibility to climate change. The work is presented as a dysfunctional Super Nintendo Entertainment System video game that is stuck permanently on a display screen that says, “GAME OVER.” The game’s narrator sarcastically embeds commanding social critiques like, “THE GLACIER MELTED BEFORE YOU COULD EXPLORE THE BAY,” and “PUSH BUTTON B TO SELECT A WORLD.” According to the artists, the installation posits “climate change tourism is a form of disaster tourism.”

Empowerpoint, Installation view

“Humor is such a powerful tool for illuminating the nuances of oppression. I’m hoping that visitors begin paying closer attention to how these oppressions manifest themselves in our daily lives,” explains Lynne. “And then, I think, we should all ask ourselves how are we supporting those affected by intersecting inequalities and checking the ways we might be implicit in that oppression. What do we need to un-learn?  How can we become better allies? What are the best ways to express radical love, to work towards justice?”

Empowerpoint continues through September 29 at The Luminary. Click here for more information.

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