Chicago

Larry Achiampong, Glyth 4, 2013, digital montage on C-print, 21 1/4 × 28 3/4". From the series “Glyth,” 2013–14.

Larry Achiampong, Glyth 4, 2013, digital montage on C-print, 21 1/4 × 28 3/4". From the series “Glyth,” 2013–14.

Larry Achiampong

Logan Center Exhibitions, University of Chicago

Larry Achiampong, Glyth 4, 2013, digital montage on C-print, 21 1/4 × 28 3/4". From the series “Glyth,” 2013–14.

THE LAST IMMIGRANT IS IN CAPTIVITY THE GALAXY IS AT PEACE reads one of the blackboards constituting Larry Achiampong’s #OPENSEASON, 2016, installed on the wall’s of the Logan’s main gallery. The words, furiously and repeatedly scrawled in chalk, may recall Adrian Piper’s Everything #21, 2010–13, but Achiampong is invoking the opening words of the 1990s Super Nintendo game Super Metroid. Substituting the word immigrant for Metroid (the game’s jellyfish-like aliens), the artist intermingles vintage gamer culture and Brexit-era xenophobia, in a gesture that encapsulates the oscillations between the analog-versus-digital, private-versus-public-media-shared and ironic-versus-genuine modalities that mark his practice.

Curated by Yesomi Umolu, “Larry Achiampong: Open Season” showcased the artist’s impressive range of media and sources, if perhaps including fewer of his virtuosic experiments with music and new media than one would have liked. As the works on view (made between 2013 and 2016) demonstrated, Achiampong’s most consistent theme has been his own biography. He peppers his works with references to, and archival materials pulled from, his experience as a London-born child of Ghanaian immigrants who was exposed at an early age to the expat community church, the culture surrounding highlife music (his uncle was a DJ), and the gamer and skateboarding subcultures of 1990s London. The wheelless, salvaged skateboard decks deployed in Battalion, 2014–, were positioned vertically against wooden crates, their flipped undersides displaying painted designs evocative of kente cloth. Against this evenhanded amalgamation of a first-generation Briton’s two cultures, the altered family photographs in the series “Glyth,” 2013–14, tell a more troubling story, reproducing, in a sense, the white gaze that might homogenize—and ridicule—people of color. The artist’s own face and those of his relatives are hauntingly obscured by red-lipped black dots the artist refers to as “cloudfaces”—abstracted portraits derived from the iconic golliwog, a black-skinned, bug-eyed children’s-book character with a gaping maw who was a onetime mascot for Robertson’s marmalade. (The company retired the racist caricature in 2001 to “move with the times.”)

Specially commissioned for the exhibition, the video Sunday’s Best, 2016, provided the strongest hints as to Achiampong’s broader practice. The work begins with a rapid-fire barrage of imagery that includes scenes from the Brexit vote and the Trump campaign (a BUILD THE WALL sign). There is a slow dissolve to the Data Traveller, one of the artist’s alter egos: a seven-year-old black child wearing a blue Buck Rogers–style helmet—a fleeting, unresolved reference to Afrofuturism—holding his hands to his ears in a gesture that could be read as alternately absorbing or blocking out the previous onslaught of imagery. The video also draws heavily on Achiampong’s recent field recordings in evangelical congregations frequented by Africans in South London and elsewhere. Amid an autobiographical meditation on the erasures and distortions of older West African traditions in the Ghanaian church’s evolution from colonialism to the diaspora, the artist’s mother appears and begins evangelizing, in the Twi language, at the Roman Catholic church Our Lady of the Assumption in Bethnal Green, East London. Her singing (in honor of a family friend who was dying at the time) is presented deliberately out of sync with the work’s footage, a reminder of the staged and ambiguous nature of Achiampong’s “intervention” (which does not precisely criticize the church so much as juxtapose two different Christian sects). Throughout the video, Achiampong observes the discrepancy between his family’s pride in their cultural traditions and their worship of a white Jesus, “the only white person” depicted in his family’s home. As the video ends, the artist suggests in voice-over that vestiges of precolonial traditions are present in the religious practices of a people whose status within their host country remains uncertain—“lost in battle, and thus translation.” Doleful synths that wash over the credits suggest a contemporary reality open to radically different outcomes yet burdened by history.

In Achiampong’s hands, the Afrofuturist interplay between utopia and dystopia is shot through with concrete, sonic traces of the past. In Ph03nix Rising: The Mogya Project, a performance for the exhibition, the artist DJ’d highlife and Afrobeat songs mixed with recordings from a wide range of West African communities. These played over projections of a hacked version of the Nintendo Wii U game Xenoblade Chronicles X, which features a rolling series of landscapes populated by dinosaur-like monsters. Superimposed over the game graphics, fragments of names and slogans, alternately political and sci-fi—MALCOLM X AND THE NATION / MAGNETO AND THE BROTHERHOOD OF MUTANTS—dissolved into one another, locating Afrofuturism’s horizon, problematically, within digital culture’s anticipation, and monetization, of the future itself. Yet the performance concluded less ambivalently, with the words of Nina Simone: “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

Daniel Quiles