Wednesday, November 27, 2013
IN Conversation with TERRENCEO Hammond, New York City based artist
Kofi Forson: So Terrenceo, in New York you are a Harlem based artist, well traveled around the world I might add. Your current escapade took you to Brixton, London, where you spent 6 months making a comparison between Brixton and Harlem. Essentially what are the differences, similarities if any?
Terrenceo Hammond: The actual physical work is still being made and the visual manifestation of all this will be exhibited in duel shows in both Harlem and Brixton in March.
The first thing I noticed was the color schemes of both communities. Harlem tends to be brown, and grey, and black, red and white. Brixton definitely is red and white. The scheme comes mostly from the signage of the cheap fried chicken joints. The same reasons for the red and white of Harlem, though Brixton has the numerous churches as Harlem because of architecture, it has an added reason for a red and white scheme.
Both communities have the ever present black of the Hijab with multiple tones of brown, and more and more tones of olive and the white of white skin of gentrification.
The great difference is the music of language, both in accent and actual language while Harlem includes the entirety of the Black Diaspora thus more languages spoken.
Brixton tends to be more of a West Indian, West African mix with the music of every European immigrant communities version of English.
The constant are the churches, angry black men and music with a powerful beat and the sound of sirens and the criminalization of young black men, young white hipsters and young white couples with the last sign of the most important sign for me of gentrification - the “double barrel baby carriage”
Forson: Harlem has been gentrified in recent years. Truthfully the precedent was set decades ago with the Harlem Renaissance. There is that dichotomy of east meets west in Harlem where the well to do live on the West Side of Harlem while the working class inhabit the Eastern Side. How is Brixton gentrified?
Hammond: It’s was sort of obvious to me I guess because I already knew some of the history. It was a traditional black neighborhood from about the 60’s. When I arrived I saw the hipsters, the couples, the double barrel baby carriages, the expensive restaurants, what appeared to be an increased police presence choosing who would be stopped and others not based on what seemed like economic status; clothing, types of restaurants where the police seemed to be observing more than others.
The people who told me that they had lived there their whole lives, both black and white and Asian said that they could not afford to go out or eat out in the same neighborhood anymore.
At one point, one night there was this woman screaming and crying in the street that she was not welcome in her own neighborhood anymore. In fact I saw several of these emotional outbursts of frustration. Then there are the ever present Sainsbury’s grocery stores. Some time there are even two in less than two blocks. You can see that the mom and pop store cannot compete with such aggressive competition.
Forson: You've been traveling through Eastern Europe starting with London. Here you did a performance piece where you were beaten, groped sexually by both men and women, set on fire and other inhumane things. What was the basis for this performance? What type of reaction did you hope to get? Were they warranted?
Hammond: The point of the Piece "Perception and Desire" was to see if we could create a perception based on our appearance and what desire could or would be created by it. So we both stood holding musical instruments. Tadeus, my partner in this project, dressed as a type of Jimmy Hendrix character holding a guitar, and me in a sort of jazz attire holding a trumpet.
I wanted to see if a stereotypical image of black musicians would create a desire in people, in particular in an area (Leicester square and Trafalgar square) where musicians are busking as it’s called in Britain, playing music for tips from people who walk past them.
At one point, to exclude race and historical perception from the mix, we dressed as cricket players. Maybe surprisingly, I had no idea the social and psychological implications of this on The British and former British colony population in London.
In both cases I wanted to use performers, athletes and musicians as a metaphor for the demand of performance, the demand that someone must always be willing to do what ever told for a small fee, for the basic nature of capitalism.
Forson: You tend to use the metaphor in your performances. How do you explain the use of cricket and busking as metaphor?
Hammond: Busking is already set up that people should expect something though they might not know what. So it’s a great way to sort of show that just because you expect to be given something and for free it’s not actually owed to you. But because people have become used to it, it’s a perception created by past experiences, though not constant.
Cricket, because of similar reasons, something is expected, though it was completely out of context for where we were.
Forson: Much like a gentleman in New York he has a regard for sophistication. How are you received around the world, first as New Yorker, an artist then black gentleman?
Hammond: Well, as a New Yorker, the eyes just widen, and then a smile, then the excitement, followed by questions and more questions. What's it like? How are the people, and of course, "you can make a lot of money there, right? The idea that anything can be possible is a constant theme with people.
As a Black man obviously the cultural impact is almost unimaginable. I have seen my culture reflect back at me in a thousand different ways, almost like the facets of a diamond. I'm still trying to process this.
The hardcore underground Hip Hop in Eastern Europe is amazing and their knowledge of it and jazz and all things Black American culture is unreal. And of course when you say Harlem! This idea that Harlem is some kind of cultural Mecca, is consistent. I don't have the heart to tell them that what they dream about is disappearing rapidly.
However the greatest amount of conflict that has come not from my skin color or even the fact that I’m American, which has brought some problems, but from the Star of David ring which i wear. The upset and anger over a simple ring has been quite shocking for me. There have been actually fist fights over it, demands and suggestions that I remove it.
Forson: African Americans were driven to cities like Paris, France in the 50's with the merit of writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and jazz musicians. This was more or less a chance to renew and rediscover their talent in ways accepted by foreigners whereas trials and tribulations were met here in America.
How have you as foreigner been able to take advantage of your talent in a world outside of your own? Rather than strive for success here in America?
Hammond: People seem more willing to listen, and try to understand where I’m coming from and my point of view and are also more receptive to my ideas.
I’ve been given opportunities to exhibit my work, without having to prove the merit of my work based on schooling and background and connections, but rather on the work itself.
I’m not saying that those things don’t exist in America, but I just have not experienced them in the same way.
The thing with me might be a problem of perception as well. This may be why I come back to it over and over through the years. I don’t think doors are open to me in the U.S. Not just because of race but because of class. I don’t feel that I’m even given the chance to be heard. How can I be bad or good at anything, if I am not even allowed to have my instrument be heard?
I think these people experienced the same more purely because of race. They didn’t go to the right school, didn’t go to school at all, don’t know the right people, don’t know who the right people are. Don’t know how to express myself in the right “artspeak gobbledegook”. That’s me.
Think of it like food. There is no amount of philosophical reasoning that can convince someone that sour is sweet or that spicy is bland, but in art you can do that.
But maybe it’s me. Maybe at my heart I’m just an uneducated philistine no matter how much I’ve read or studied or experienced. But coming from my generation I think I will always feel the sting of racism and maybe over in Europe they’re too busy being racist to other groups like gypsies, to focus on just black.
So I have a better chance. At least I don’t get that feeling or that look of I already know you and everything you feel and have to say. That I get in America and to some degree in London.
Forson: You grew up in South Central, L.A. What type of upbringing did you have? How did you discover art? To the point where you sought after it as profession?
Hammond: Actually I was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma if anyone remembers the song from the 60’s. I grew up all over the world as an Air Force brat and a political refugee, but in terms of “growing up” yes L.A., first sex, first kiss, first love, first concerts, first drugs, first real experience with art, seeing things in museums in front of my eyes.
The difference for me was a photograph and standing in front of what I might think is an important work. It was a world of difference that changed my life and caused me to really think that this might be something to give my life to.