PRINT May 2019


Henrietta Lacks’s “HeLa” cells, date unknown. Photo: Dr. Torsten Wittman/National Institutes of Health/Getty Images.

THROUGHOUT THIS YEAR, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is presenting “Colored People Time,” an exhibition comprising three chapters: “Mundane Futures” (February 1–March 31), “Quotidian Pasts” (April 26–August 11), and “Banal Presents” (September 13–December 22). Conceived and organized by assistant curator MEG ONLI, the show addresses how white supremacy suffuses the everyday, perpetually reinscribing the history of racial violence in the present so as to hold liberation in abeyance. Here, Onli speaks with Artforum contributing editor HUEY COPELAND about the political and conceptual underpinnings of “Colored People Time” and how the ordinary is also the place of the possible. 

W. O. Oldman with masks and headdresses, ca. 1920. Photo: Pacific and Atlantic Photos Ltd.

HUEY COPELAND: Can you explain what you mean by “Colored People Time”? I’m particularly interested in how you think about it as a mode of resistance, because it strikes me that you’re differentiating CPT—usually expressed in black vernacular as “Colored People’s Time”—from what the political theorist and professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania Michael Hanchard describes as the imposition of “racial time” on marginalized groups.

MEG ONLI: I’m approaching CPT not only as a political performance of resistance but also as a linguistic tool that allows black people and people of color to navigate their own temporality within and against the construct of Western time. I was attracted to CPT because it’s a living, liberatory phrase. Michael lays out this notion of racial time as it pertains to the “subordinate class” waiting, let’s say, for goods or reparations or justice. That waiting prompts the question, Who is withholding? I interpret Michael’s ideas to mean that marginalized people are waiting for a time that’s going to come. The difference with CPT is that the people who are marginalized can shift their relationship to the temporality that Michael is naming by deploying a performance that says, “I am going to make time for myself. I’m going to pause for a moment. I’m going to be late. This time is for me.” I think that this is why Maxine Waters’s use of “reclaiming my time” really resonated with so many people.

HC: Yes.

MO: Think of what happens when a white person says, “I’m reclaiming my time,” versus when a black person says it: There’s this sudden slippage, a reorientation, when a marginalized person says, “Wait a minute. This is the time that I can claim for myself, even when I’m still in racial time and I am waiting for justice. I am waiting for reparations. I’m waiting for all the things that we are waiting for to come.” You can still claim CPT in the midst of racial time.

HC: Could you say a little bit about how CPT’s temporality departs from that of Afrofuturism, and how it resonates with notions of black-futurity as they are deployed in artistic practice and discourse today?

MO: I appreciate Afrofuturism and the ground that it’s laid, but I wanted to get away from some of its dominant themes and aesthetics. As a black queer woman, I wanted to understand how Afrofuturism has circulated and in many ways overdetermined what black futurity looks like. Could our future be less spectacular? Is there room to envision a future that could be boring?

When thinking about Afrofuturism, CPT, and even Michael’s notion of racial time, I might make these distinctions: Afrofuturism is a genre, racial time is a theory, and CPT is a performance. Of course, this is highly reductive, since all these ideas overlap and are in direct relation to one another, but that is a quick way to distinguish them.

As a black queer woman, I wanted to understand how Afrofuturism has circulated and in many ways overdetermined what black futurity looks like. Could our future be less spectacular? Is there room to envision a future that could be boring?

HC: As a performance, how does Colored People Time differentially intersect with the temporalities of gender, sexuality, and class? And how can we refine CPT as a conceptual frame as we think about various kinds of waiting? For instance, we might think about the difference between Frantz Fanon waiting for himself in the space of the cinema, which he writes about at the end of “The Fact of Blackness,” the fifth chapter of Black Skin, White Masks [1952], and the kind of gendered temporal delays that Faith Wilding narrates in her performance monologue Waiting [1972].

MO: I actually studied with Faith, so whenever I hear the word waiting, I think of her and that work. Yeah, there’s a way in which someone like Obama has criticized black people based on an idea of “appropriate” behavior. Derecka Purnell recently wrote about this in a New York Times op-ed. Obama’s attitude reflects an idea of respectability as defined by the black bourgeois class. For me, CPT is born out of the laboring class. It is performed in opposition, or at least against (and within) the boss’s clock. 

Something I have been thinking about in relation to waiting, or where I can see CPT maybe expand a bit conceptually, is what happens when CPT is not only a mode of resistance but also names the reasons why people run late. What I love about CPT is the vernacular way it speaks to a theoretical framework of black performativity, but I think it’s also useful to reevaluate what else we perform while in this racial time. CPT, then, is not only what we perform in the wake of capitalism, but also an explanation as to why we are late to begin with. I’m thinking through this while working on an essay for the catalogue.

View of “Colored People Time: Mundane Futures,” 2019, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Center: Aria Dean, Notes on Blaccelerationism, 2017. Photo: Constance Mensh.

HC: So how did you come to conceptualize this trio of exhibitions, which unfold in and over time?

MO: The concepts came out of conversations with colleagues, friends, and artists who are in the show, particularly Erin Christovale, Jackie Clay, Maori Karmael Holmes, Amber Rose Johnson, Chloe Julius, and Olivia Porte. I was working with this great intern, Maya Arthur, and she told me about a reading given by the poet and University of Pennsylvania professor Simone White, whom I worked with in “Speech/Acts” [2017]. At some point in the reading, Simone asked, “Why do we never address the present in the present moment?” Hearing that helped me conceptualize the sequencing of the exhibitions that would then highlight the temporal entanglement that Colored People Time is addressing.

“Mundane Futures” is structured around Martine Syms’s “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” [2013]. I wanted to ground her text as part of a historical discourse. She advocates for a sense of malleability or porousness and, of course, for a nonspectacular future. The range of works in this show is expansive, covering 1899 to 2019, because I want it to feel as if you are moving through time, jumping to different moments in American history.

“Quotidian Pasts” is site-specific. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has wanted to collaborate with the Institute of Contemporary Art since 1971, so I asked them if they’d be willing to let me look through their collection with the anthropologist Monique Renee Scott, who is also director of museum studies at Bryn Mawr College, as well as with artist Matthew Angelo Harrison. This allowed me to think about how black objects and black bodies have been displayed inside museums, and to directly work with a collection and address its challenges.

Matthew Angelo Harrison’s polygon mesh of Batetela Statue 30-55-1. From the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Because these exhibitions unfold over time, there is room for changes, pivots, or moments of readdress. The third chapter, which is still under development, will feature a brand-new commission from Carolyn Lazard, one of the voices central to this exhibition, in coversation with the work of Cameron Rowland and Sable Elyse Smith.

HC: For you, what kinds of horizons, problems, and questions is the idea of a mundane future meant to keep open or alive?

MO: I was once talking with Claudia Rankine about an interview with her that I’d read in graduate school. At one point, she was asked, “What would your life look like without white supremacy?” and she answered by describing a really mundane day of walking down the street, reading a book, feeling un-harassed and totally comfortable in the world. But when I recalled this to Claudia, she said, “That’s great, but that wasn’t me. That sounds like Fred Moten or Harryette Mullen.” So when Fred came to town, I told him the same story, and he said, “Oh, that’s not me. That sounds like either Claudia or Harryette.” Then I met Harryette in Los Angeles, and I mentioned the interview to her, and she said, “Not me. That definitely sounds like Claudia or Fred.”

During that conversation, I asked Harryette why she doesn’t use the term avant-garde anymore, and she said it’s because we’re all thinking about a future. Every person walking down the street is thinking about the time that’s to come, whether it’s what you’re going to have for dinner or where you’re going on vacation or if you’re going to get home in time. I wrote about this conversation in my essay for the “Speech/Acts” catalogue, but it resonated with me so much that I wanted to return to it in the first chapter of this exhibition.

“Mundane Futures” features two newspapers from the Black Panther Party. Although written in 1972, they feel so present, and a bit like a template for a mundane future. We want justice and an end to police brutality. We want fair wages. We want universal health care. All of these things. I wanted the show to reveal that there are historical roots to both CPT and notions of futurity.

HC: And, specifically, you’re tracking that history from the late 1890s, the post-Reconstruction era in the United States?

MO: Yes. If we follow chronologically, the oldest object in the show is a reprint of Sutton E. Griggs’s dystopian novel Imperium in Imperio. It was first published in 1899, a critical period when suddenly we were asking, “What does it look like for black people to be in this nation?” (We continue to ask that same question.) By the time this book was written, Reconstruction had failed and Jim Crow legislation was spreading across the country. I argue in the first exhibition that the notion of futurity is inherent to blackness. Some people have asked me, “Why look back when the show is about the future?” I think we’ve always been looking toward the future. We’re looking toward a time in which white supremacy is no longer a determining factor of our daily lives, but I am not optimistic that time will ever come. A lot of works in the show speak to that pessimism as well.

Cover of the 2019 edition of Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio, (1899, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania).

HC: In addition to volleying among different artworks and objects, the exhibition presents materials that, of course, have their own mixed temporalities. In particular, I’m thinking of Dave McKenzie’s Futuro [2013] an image of a bedpan that underlines the mundanity—and the absurdity—of objects imagined to belong to, or predict, a future.

MO: Totally. When I first saw Futuro, I remember chuckling and then thinking about how black bodies relate to the medical-industrial complex. Dave’s “re-imaging” of this product, with the presence of his hands, speaks to how marginalized people are rendered invisible by health care, be it in the marketing of the products or in the negation of the people who are typically employed as caregivers.

Dave McKenzie, Futuro, 2013, ink-jet print mounted on aluminum, 61 × 61".

HC: The rich layering in Dave’s work also telegraphs the multiplicity that you’re expecting from each of the exhibitions. They unfold sequentially, but it’s not as if they’re necessarily building or dependent on one another. Is it an accumulative accretion that you’re after, or are there ways in which you want to have certain narrative modes or moments punctuated, certain thematics brought out for the viewer?

MO: There will be a literal accumulation of text in that the exhibition vinyl will remain in the space so that viewers will see it in all three shows. I wanted to put forth a muddling distortion, or temporal confusion, in the exhibitions. If you look at a broad history of blackness in America, you can jump in at different times that are inherently connected but feel very disjointed.

Although the shows are curated as distinct chapters, there are themes that run throughout. In my catalogue text, I write about tense and conjugation. I write about how black bodies are treated as objects that circulate—particularly within the biomedical field, the museum, and the prison-industrial complex. The final work in “Mundane Futures” is a stock image of Henrietta Lacks’s cells dividing, which is owned by the National Institutes of Health and Getty Images. The story of Lacks and her family and how they were used by the medical industry is horrendous, and I was really drawn to the idea of how this medical institution will indefinitely profit off of a black woman’s body without her consent.

HC: It’s interesting that in your second show, “Quotidian Pasts,” you present this very focused understanding of what’s happened historically, an exploration of the processes through which blackness, like Colored People Time, gets produced and performed. So the ability to do all this wonderful temporal scrambling and juxtaposition is, in part, a function of how well you and your collaborators—artists and scholars and colleagues—know the actual history. Clearly, sometimes what is needed is a historically grounded framework of cause and effect, which seems to be part of the gambit of “Quotidian Pasts.” In the third show, “Banal Presents,” are you trying to engage where you are now, specifically at Penn, and what it means to be working in the context of Philadelphia, and the longue durée of black life in the city?

Kevin Jerome Everson, IFO, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

MO: I will say that the final chapter is still quite undetermined. Working on a show about Colored People Time, and thinking about belatedness and how it affects me, as a “hyperproductive” person who has to produce on a certain schedule—it’s funny, but I’m late for everything right now. My texts are late. Everything for this show is running one to two weeks behind. Carolyn is based in Philadelphia, and Cameron was born and raised in Philadelphia, so I am absolutely thinking about Philly, and particularly about Penn, as a significant site. Carolyn’s commission will look at the history of medical testing in Holmesburg Prison, conducted by a Penn professor from the 1950s through the ’70s.

HC: And we could also think about these questions of sited-ness in relation to W. E. B. Du Bois’s sociological touchstone, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study [1899].

MO: Yes. Penn commissioned Du Bois, and the Seventh Ward [where Du Bois conducted his study] is just over the river from the university and the ICA.

HC: I love that this platform allows you to operate inside of time, so that it becomes part of the material of the show in a way that’s abetted by a processional structure. This prompts us to think about the larger logic of the processional within African diasporic cultures, particularly as it’s been explored by the curators Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson in their [2017–18] exhibition “En Mas’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean” and its catalogue. Can you say more about this particular format and what you see it making possible for your work?

MO: Oh, I love that connection. I wasn’t thinking about the processional as a diasporic form when I created the structure of the exhibition, but I did try to make the curatorial process part of the framework, so that conversations like this one could push me beyond my initial conception. Time is a material that I am not only examining but also working with. The linguist Geneva Smitherman talks about CPT as a disavowal of the sixty-second-per-minute structure of time, and as a return to one based in nature. So I organized the three shows according to the museum’s exhibition seasons: winter, spring/summer, and fall. Smitherman’s ideas and Tina Campt’s notion (via Hortense Spillers) of conjugation also led me to consider how we use language to manipulate concepts of time. I am thinking about what it means for conjugation to be an action that is radical, creating multiple perspectives, enabling us to think about a future that feels imminent and important. In the second chapter, I think about it through the work of anthropologist Anna Tsing, who asserts that placing people in the past means that they both have history and are history. In other words: How does this active conjugation objectify a person?

HC: Which is also indebted to the methods of black studies and of “black study,” in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s sense, right?

MO: Totally. My practice is inherently couched in black studies, in that I want to question notions of mastery. While conceiving of these exhibitions, I was really drawn to Gregory Pardlo’s essay “Colored People’s Time,” which was published in Callaloo in 2016. It begins with: “Don’t expect a straight line. My canvas is time, and I can’t—don’t want to—approach the thing using its own logic, through the pretense of a single discrete, authoritative position. I need to come at it from different angles—a kind of gestalt approach—which means I’ll be flinging ideas at it from around the room.” It’s eerie how much that sums up my approach to these shows. I move quickly. I avoid linearity. I do as much research as I can. Then I fling ideas around the room to see what sticks.