There’s often a debate on whether or not ‘All Art is Political.’ On the other hand, some artists make their work unapologetically political and explicit in the message they want to convey. Indeed, more have taken a stand to fight injustice with the current political climate in the way they see fit. For artist and professor Ekene Ijeoma, art can be used to educate people on prevalent social issues. Being a director and founder of the Poetic Justice Group at MIT media labs, Ijeoma creatively blends arts, media, and technology to explore various facets of injustice that African Americans face in the United States.
While originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Ijeoma had an early affinity for art but was discouraged by his parents to pursue it as a career path. Nevertheless, he continued working on art while learning to code and study design. Ijeoma eventually found his way to New York, where he studied information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Ijeoma’s breakthrough came at the hands of creation, The Refugee Project. The project’s result was a map that highlighted the movement of refugees across the globe since 1975. Ijeoma remarks that “It showed, for the first time, every country affected by the refugee crisis.” Moreover, the project did more than give a simple statistical overview of people, but it also provided a larger frame to present the issue in. As such, “[The Project] was to show more perspectives, to look outside the frames of photography that just focus on individuals, and look at the larger system of the refugee crisis itself.”
Ijeoma continued his bold approach in design with his deconstructed version of the Star-Spangled Banner. ‘Deconstructed anthems’ reimagines the U.S national anthem’s sound via stops and alterations of the notes being played. The new interpretation of the anthem was played by Ijeoma and his colleagues in a small area surrounded by glass that allows viewers a distorted but clear view. The lights shut down at critical moments of the song. The changes in tune and replacement of specific notes during sections symbolize the alarming incarceration rate minorities face. The tenuous flickering of the lights and decomposed melodies attract a bitter level of awareness. There is a clear sense of disruption and dysfunctionality that one suffers through when listening to the anthem being played in this manner. A national anthem is intended to represent a country. Still, it is difficult for many who experience inequality to take a symbol of unity with the same amount of seriousness as those that live in the same country without equivalent obstacles: “The statistics are shocking: one out of every three black boys born in the USA today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys, compared with just one of every 17 white boys, according to the ACLU”.
The self-awareness to create such art only motivated him to further advance these critical social causes. In 2018, the cause happened to hit harder at home. His sculpture “Pan-African Aids,” which consisted of glass layers stacked and zooming into a map of Africa, was created to bring attention to the interlinkage between the high rates of AIDS found in black men from both in the United States and in Africa. The piece presented a simple yet telling image of the problems that were being ignored in the context of the AIDS epidemic. According to Dazed, “Between 2008 and 2015, while the rates of HIV/Aids infections in Africa went down, the rates in the black population in the USA actually went up”. Ijeoma further elaborated that “Men who have sex with men in Harlem, their rates are about the same as some of the countries with the highest HIV prevalence rates like South Africa… We’re supposed to be this first-world country. Yet you have populations here that are experiencing the same conditions as in so-called developing countries”.
Art is a useful medium to express that which isn’t always possible with words, so it is vital to outline the message the artist feels needs to be heard. For Ekene Ijeoma, the message is relatively straightforward. There needs to be more awareness and education on the damage being dealt with with colored communities across the United States. If the words weren’t exact enough, then perhaps some visual stimulation should help.