A Different View of a Jamaican Dancehall

A piece by Akeem Smith for The New York Times.

On the verge of his first major exhibition, Akeem Smith shares a new artwork.

In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-shown work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work into context. This week, we’re looking at a video by Akeem Smith, which will be part of his show “No Gyal Can Test” at Red Bull Arts in New York in late September. Smith’s work often takes inspiration from his experience working with his family’s fashion house, the Ouch Collective, and from the Jamaican dancehall community.

Name: Akeem Smith

Age: 28

Based in: Brooklyn, N.Y. and Kingston, Jamaica

Originally from: Brooklyn, N.Y. and Kingston, Jamaica

When and where did you make this work? This artwork draws on my video and photo archive of Jamaica’s dancehall scene from 1985 through the early 2000s. I have been building this archive over the last 12 years, and this exhibition, which will finally open this September at Red Bull Arts New York, has always been part of my thinking. For the past nine months, I’ve been back and forth between Kingston and New York finishing up this work and the exhibition.

Can you describe what is going on in the work? This excerpt, which features archival documentation, highlights, at a lumbering and hypnotic clip, the character’ssingular, mesmeric power, as she revels in a ritualistic haze that transforms dance onlookers into devotees. I’m isolating and playing with the idea of the gaze. Western culture talks a lot about the male gaze, but what about the colonial gaze or the female gaze? The optics of this piece are meant to illustrate the power of a female gaze, the power of commanding and demanding attention.

What inspired you to make this work? I believe spontaneous moments of cohesion can manifest something potent, something powerful. A lot can happen in those transformative moments, and the schematics of how they occurred are often overlooked. With this work, I’m exploring how this uncanny phenomenon unfolds through simultaneous lived experiences. By juxtaposing a multitude of realities and perspectives, I’m looking to decentralize history, to illustrate that there is not one primary story, but many that coalesce.

What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? The tension between the playfulness and social critique in Andy Warhol’s “Invisible Sculpture” (1985) is always stuck in my mind. For me, it represents art’s unlimited potential.

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