For ‘Time Out New York’ magazine,
Otabenga Jones and Associates, a Houston-based collaborative that will participate in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, takes its name from an African pygmy who was put on display at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. As this detail suggests, the group is interested in the intersection of African and American history, specifically their own richly imaginative version of it as told in the show’s centerpiece: a sound installation recounting the outlandish story of Mudbone, a South Bronx MC who travels to the land of his ancestors during an out-of-body experience.
Mudbone’s tale is full of engaging magical-realist details (his crew shakes the earth as they walk to a competition; his hair takes on a life of its own and absconds). But the installation itself—a small stage decorated like an altar with a microphone; swags of red, green and black fabric; and offerings of junky items, including old sneakers and LPs—doesn’t do justice to the fabulous images conjured by the soundtrack. An amateurish wall mural, drawings and related sculptural objects feel like little more than a backup act for the main attraction.
We’re informed that Mudbone is empowered by knowledge of his ancestors, but the specifics of this revelation aren’t divulged. The tale’s ambiguity communicates an ambivalence about the possibility of constructing an African-American history. Inspiring historical figures like Harriet Tubman make cameo appearances in the tale but always in the confines of a stereotypical setting—either an urban ghetto or a forest’s dark interior. In the end, Otabenga Jones and Associates’ show hovers somewhere between an affirmation and an acknowledgment of futility.