Imo Imeh explains the meaning “and i’ll be there with you,” one of the works featured in this collection, in a digital exclusive.
Holyoke-based artist and Westfield State University Professor Imo Imeh is set to debut a new project entitled in his name at Pulp Gallery in Holyoke on January 15th.
The exhibit, which focuses on the January 6, 2021, insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, has been a work in progress for several months now.
Connecting Point visited Imeh this past summer during the early stages of the project, and we rejoined Imeh in his Holyoke studio recently to learn more about both the completed exhibition and how the events at the U.S. Capitol one year ago inspired the collection.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Local artist and Westfield State University Professor Imo Imeh is set to debut a new project entitled in his name at Pulp Gallery in Holyoke on January 15th.
The exhibit, which focuses on the January 6th insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, has been a work in progress for several months now.
Connecting Point visited him this past summer during the early stages of the project, and we rejoined Imeh in his Holyoke-based studio recently to learn more about both the completed exhibition and the inspiration behind it.
Imo Imeh, Artist & Educator: It’s been a really grueling, but somehow purging process of working on on these drawings. And they’re large, they’re large images.
As I’ve been working on them, I’ve been, you know, coming to terms, not — not just with what happened on January 6th, because January 6th, really, for me represents a culmination of of many things that we’ve seen over the last decade, not just the last four or five years, but really over the last decade. And January 6th, in many ways, represents the American story, in so many ways.
And so, as I’ve been developing the drawings, I have been doing a lot of writing on the side, and taking a lot of notes, and realizing that the story is so much greater than any one day. And so, that has informed the — the — the works themselves. It’s informed the direction that I’ve wanted to take with some of the pieces.
And if works are still in progress, they’re still in development, it’s in many ways informed how I’ll bring them to an end. And at some point I really did decide at some point, “Imo, you have to bring the works to an end,” right? They can’t just keep going on.
But there’s so many stories that are tied in with them. And so it’s exciting. It’s a little depressing, if I’m honest with you, and somewhere in all of that is…my tremendous appreciation that I have art as an expression at this time.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, as you mentioned, this exhibit is through your viewpoint of the events that took place on January 6th.
Why did you choose the title “in his name,” and what drew you to create an exhibit on this event?
Imo Imeh: I chose in his name — all lowercase, okay — because I feel, as a Black Christian man, part of — part of the rupture, part of the scatter — the scattering that I have felt emotionally, has been around the idea that in my lifetime now, I have had a chance to really witness what I’ve seen in history books, certainly in the last century, the last two hundred years in the United States, where people have used the name of God to do the most vile, the most horrific things.
It is a sad, sad, sad realization to understand that so many people who claim to to believe in the same things that you believe in, only believe in those things to the degree that it may afford them a certain kind of license or power to harm others.
And so, the title for me is appropriate. In whose name? The his is, if it was capitalized, might might be talking, right, about about the Christian Jesus, right?
But because everything is in lowercase, it allows me to really frame this as a big question. Why? What exactly — in whose name are you doing this? It couldn’t possibly be the Jesus Christ of Nazareth that I worship.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, let’s talk a little bit about the artwork that will be featured in this exhibit.
As I was walking around, I noticed that many of the pieces are black and white, but there is one piece that does incorporate some color and some interesting materials.
So, talk to me about the decision to incorporate color in one of these and the material that you used.
Imo Imeh: Black and white…let’s start with the black and white. I have had a series of projects over the last couple of years that have really incorporated the use of black and white. And black and white is nice because it forces me, as an artist, to tell what might be a violent, what might be an aggressive story, with these very simple designs, right, in black and white.
And the pieces that I’m working on almost feel like political cartoons, right? There’s something that’s cartoon-y about them, there’s something that’s exaggerated about them. And I think that black and white allows our imaginations to go in many directions, because the color isn’t there to define everything for you. So — so, the black and white is a nice feel, and it’s something haunting about the images in black and white.
The — the work that has color in it currently, and I don’t know if all of them will, but the one that currently has color is titled “and i’ll be there with you.” And that is a work that features a female in the center of the canvas, who is laid out in a pose as if she’s being carried. And that female represents the woman who was shot at the Capitol.
Her name is Ashli Babbitt. She is, in many ways, a tragic figure. And that piece has color for a very specific reason. I chose to do a work about Ashli Babbitt before the controversy of her martyrdom and her perceived martyrdom and everything else.
Imo Imeh: And, you know, news channels and everything were talking about her, I knew that I had to do a work on her, or about her, because of what she represents. She represents really America’s everyman or everywoman, right?
But she…she’s a veteran. I mean, let’s start there, right? She’s a veteran, who in many ways became the definition of, I don’t want to say a traitor or someone who does treason, but — but someone who wanted to overthrow her own government. And so, her story is fascinating in how she was killed.
I was interested in painting a picture of someone who stumbled into a pit, really of her own making, but is now being held up not by anyone’s arms, but by the very stakes that the flags that cover her were meant to carry. The flag motifs that are around her body are her covering. These are the things that, in some ways, the ideals that in some ways that she carried the things that she believed.
But the title of the work also tells you a ton about what you need to know about this image. The title “and i’ll be there with you” sounds biblical, but it’s — it’s right out of the transcript of what Donald Trump said before she rushed the Capitol and was killed.
Imo Imeh: And he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there. She died alone.
And so her figure is taken from a work by Michelangelo titled “Pietà,” where the form of Jesus is being held by the Virgin Mary after he’s been crucified. I’ve replaced her body with that of Jesus because in some minds, she really has become a martyr. But in many minds, in my own included, she’s just a really, really, really tragic figure.
And that some how comes to represent where we are in the United States right now, where we are as a nation, where the belief in nothing can potentially bring you to death. But then, in the same way, that death can be — can be raised up to something really that it shouldn’t be, you know? And so, to kind of crystallize all of that into something that makes a little more sense, all right?
The flags covering her body represents some of the ideals for which she was killed, for which she died. But she’s being held up really by no hand, certainly not by the hands of Donald Trump. And the big question is, you know, if he wasn’t there for her, who was, in her death?
And so for me, she isn’t a political figure. She’s a tragic figure and somehow an indication of the larger, the larger trauma that this nation is currently undergoing.
Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned that some of these pieces feel like political cartoons to you.
What challenges do you encounter working on pieces like this when it’s talking about politics? And do you ever fear being too controversial?
Imo Imeh: I don’t fear being too controversial because…I have been afforded a station as an artist, as a professor, as a writer, as a speaker, and not everybody has a station like mine. And I’m very aware of that.
This particular body of work is special because, while it uses January 6th and the Capitol insurrection as a launching pad to have a bigger conversation, it dives into — it delves into these very, very tragic histories that have come to inform who I am as an African-American man.
And so is there a way, for example, to see gallows that are built at the Capitol? And yes, while people are chanting, “Hang Mike Pence?” Is there a way for me, as a Black man who understands that the Capitol at its core was built by African-American slaves? Can I un-see the historical gallows that killed so many of my people and not one hundred years ago? Is it — can I unsee that?
Yes, they were saying, “Hang Mike Pence.” No, they didn’t hang Black people at the Capitol on January 6th. But how can I see and hear the things that I saw and heard that day and not immediately be transported into my own history in this nation?
And that’s why there is this Black male that appears there, this angelic form, that reminds us that there were Black witnesses to other kinds of gallows that were built in this nation, not that long ago.
And it’s also an opportunity to warn of the fact that America doesn’t do a very good job with regaling its own history and with re-telling it. And we are constantly doomed to repeat the mistakes that we made in the past.
And so, as an artist, this is my opportunity to speak truth — maybe for the purposes of education — and also just as a purging, as a purging, and as a way of as a way of helping me to negotiate my own space in this nation.
Zydalis Bauer: This exhibit will also include the musical composition of Haneef Nelson.
Why did you want to include music as part of this exhibit? How do the two artistic mediums collaborate to tell the story of “in his name?”
Imo Imeh: Haneef is a tremendous composer and musician, and for me, the story is so much bigger than just the visual expression. The story is musical. It is textual. The idea of marrying image with caption. The idea of marrying image with melody to tell a fuller, broader, and more accurate story is something that I’ve wanted to do for years.
The reason why I’m bringing these two items together, and then later on text and prose, is because the story is big enough. The story is big enough and expansive enough that it needs to be told from these different angles.
Zydalis Bauer: And speaking of that conversation, as an artist, what do you see as the role of art and politics being?
Imo Imeh: Oh, I don’t think that — I don’t — I don’t know if art and politics can ever be separated. I just don’t know if it it’s possible.
I won’t say that the best art always speaks to politics. I won’t say that at all. I don’t think that’s true. But I know from myself, I — I think that art has allowed me to find my voice within a very political realm.
And so now that the skill is honed, and now that I’m of an age where I can actually marry my ideas with the techniques, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to host a conversation about these things and and because I have the platform to do so, I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.
Zydalis Bauer: When we last spoke to you, you stated that you refuse to separate yourself from this story and you’re unapologetic about it.
What conversations do you hope people have when they are engaging with this exhibit?
Imo Imeh: Ok, so the good professorial answer would be “I hope that this sparks a conversation about race.” And I don’t know if I believe that anymore.
I am very, very, very satisfied with these ideas, as uncomfortable as they are, and as honest as they are, and as raw as they are, and as unedited as they are — it’s the other thing about these images I’m working on: they’re not edited. They’re black and white on canvas, I’m not doing a lot of erasing. They’re — they’re there. I am okay with these images and accompanying text and accompanying musical scores, sitting and making people think and maybe even causing some discomfort. I am okay if that’s all that happens, for now.
That is not to say that I don’t want to have another conversation about race in America. We have had those! We have had them. I don’t know if that’s my job anymore.
I think that presenting the information and allowing people to walk away, perhaps with a new body of knowledge that they didn’t have prior to seeing the images and reading the text and hearing the melodies, maybe that by itself can do something.
And if more comes from that, then that responsibility should be on all of us: the artists and the viewers, right? The — the — the performers and the audience somehow working together to push this nation into a new place, that is something we do together. There’s no one person or group of people that can do that.
And so, that is where I am with this project and there’s something that has been fulfilling about working on them in that capacity.