Artist Spotlight

JK4REAL, United States

Instagram: JK4REAL February 04, 2017 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Tell us a little about yourself

I'm an artist living in Miami but I am originally from New York City. Everything goes back to childhood. I grew up in the '70s and '80s with my Dad who used to collect African art sculptures. I remember him dragging us to the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) to see the African art collection.

Even though at the time we thought our Dad was silly for collecting 'wooden voodoo dolls', this early exposure to African art and sculpture had a profound effect on what I now see as beautiful. With age, I developed an understanding of the figures my Dad collected and, with maturity, I understood the weight and meaning of his collection.

'Magic City Power Figure', 2015
Phograph by James McEntee

Talk to us about your 2015 piece 'Magic City Power Figure', what was the inspiration behind it?

Classic African art was all about function. It was created to fulfil a purpose, from enhancing fertility and remembering ancestors, to controlling the external environment. Art today seems to lack function and does not exude a sense of power. I went to Art Basel Miami in 2016 and what I saw there of today's art was fast, shiny, and superficial. Much of it was luxury-based, created to grab our sense of recognition by incorporating cartoon and popular brand imagery. Is this what is appealing today?

More so than ever, I think people need to connect with art not only visually but also spiritually. On a very basic and instinctual level, when you look at classic African art, there is an immediate aesthetic appeal to its colour, shape, design, and patina. No education is needed, but you also get a sense of purpose.

Sigmund Freud had African art on display in his exam rooms. Why? Because these objects affect us emotionally. They reestablish us as humans—it's medicinal therapy that fulfils a basic need. Modern society can be so screwed up, but when I look at African art I get my compass back, it gives relief from society. When I look at African art pieces, I am floored by the power, meaning and feelings that they evoke. Art today lacks this and that's where I hope to come in.

I created 'Magic City Power Figure' to bring us back to the idea of function. I took influences directly from nkisi nkondi figures of the Kongo people of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ever since I saw the Mangaaka figure at the MET I've been fascinated by how these figures were created, used and ultimately what they meant to the individual and to the entire community.

The kundu gland in the stomach that holds the 'medicine', the power to enable the figure accomplish great feats of good or evil; the mbeezi nails pounded into the figure to provoke the spirit residing within it and release the medicinal prescription. These functional elements are extremely powerful visually but also have parallels with life today, that's what I've tried to capture in my work. 'Magic City Power Figure' is about how Miami makes me feel, how we influence our environment and how it influences us. Driving the nails into the concrete allowed the release of Miami's prescription. I hope it does the same to the people who experience it.

Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka (Arbiter Power Figure)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Your choice of material is interesting—why concrete, why red?

Why concrete? When I started creating or thinking about creating, every thought I had went back to 'the head', the head being that central processing organ of the body—once the brain goes are you still alive? Concrete has this density, this head-like feel and weight to it that suited my work perfectly.

Why red? I went to Cornell University and took a psychology class during which the Professor teaching told us that red is the most important colour. Red is the only colour that the eye sees and that the brain will stop to look at; that’s why stop signs are in red. That idea stayed with me ever since. Hence the nails had to be painted red.

'Magic City Power Figure', 2015
Photograph by James Mcentee
'Magic City Power Figure', 2015
Photograph by James Mcentee

What has been the reaction to your work? Has it exposed more people to classic African art?

When young people come to see my work they like it and find it visually stimulating. However, they are largely unaware of African art so don't immediately identify the reference. But when I tell them that it's a power figure and explain what that means, then their appreciation is elevated to "wow, this is really incredible, do you want to sell this one?".

I find that people are also afraid to touch. Just as with African art, my work is made to be touched. The majority of art today hangs on walls—there's no interaction with it except for the visual. My pieces are designed to be taken off their stands and held. It’s that tactile experience that delivers the power of the piece. You have to feel the weight of it and feel the texture of the concrete and nails. My art is designed to have function.

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