In his artwork, Brooklyn-based visual artist Kambui Olujimi pays particular attention to contemporary race relations and associated power disparities while addressing the contradictions, misconceptions, and failures embedded in America’s social, economic, and political landscape.
“There are a lot of things that we don’t acknowledge as real … things that we think are implicit. Well, maybe they’re not. So let’s look at it. Let’s look and evaluate … because my feeling is that most of it is not set. It’s decided, but we don’t make the decision,” Olujimi tells Madison365 in an interview at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). “We get lulled into it. And there’s a lot of our lives that we get lulled into and I just ask people to think about it. Reconsider what these systems are and how they operate both on a grand scale and in our lives – people to people. That’s the shift that we need to make.”
Olujimi’s goal with his artwork is to get his audience to question the assumptions underlying their understanding of the world around them. His solo exhibition “Kambui Olujimi: Zulu Time” will be featured at the MMoCA until Aug. 13 with the opening taking place tomorrow night. “Zulu Time” will show how the imposition of time has disadvantaged large groups of people. Olujimi uses his artwork to addresses racial disparities and inequities in the invisible systems that thread through our culture.
“When I think about the construction of race … I live in a circumstance where I’m constantly bumping up against someone else’s projection of who I am and I think that led me to talk about incongruities. When you think about wealth disparities, for example, it’s because there is an incongruity between collective ideals and greed,” he says. “We talk about caring about a society, but capitalism rewards something other than that. We care about fairness, but the legal system does not support that whether we are talking about LGBT or race or gender … it’s not always fair.
“A lot of my work crisscrosses these themes,” he adds. “It’s not something endemic of being black; it’s something that’s endemic of being American.”
Olujimi’s work has been exhibited widely across the United States with solo exhibitions at the CUE Arts Foundation (New York, NY); MIT List Visual Arts Center (Cambridge, MA); Apexart (New York, NY); and Art in General (Brooklyn, NY). His work has premiered at The Sundance Film Festival (Park City, UT), as well as group exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institute, (Washington D.C.); Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA); the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY);
Leah Kolb, associate curator at the MMoCA, has worked closely with Olujimi over the past two years to present this “Zulu Time” exhibition and catalog to the public.
“All of the work that people will see here was created in 2017. All of it is new,” Kolb tells Madison365. “All of the issues that he is raising are important issues and themes we are facing now. We are very excited to have him here. This current show, ‘Zulu Time,’ has really evolved and changed over the two years that we’ve been talking, so it has been a really interesting process to see how his artistic brain works and pulls in ideas and shifts.”
Olujimi was born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and earned his MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts. He is a graduate of Parson’s School of Design and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
“I’ve been making artwork since I was a kid. My mother wanted me to be an artist … we made collages as a kid and there were a lot of artists around me,” Olujimi remembers. “But I was very much into math and science for a long time. I’m still interested in science quite a bit. Science is a really good way to have me think about time in different ways and people in different ways.”
Some of Olujimi’s work is inspired by Catherine Arline, a Bed-Stuy community leader and activist and a woman he considered a surrogate mother.
“Miss Arline is magic in a bottle. She was my guardian angel and I knew her since birth. She was a dear friend, a confidant and a mentor,” Olujimi says. “A lot of the conversations that we had around notions of the divine and transcendental spaces were really interesting. I was happy to have known her while she was alive. Every moment with her was a gift.”
In “Zulu Time,” Olujimi explores the interlocking systems of power and entrenched hierarchies that impact our daily lives. Mobilizing a broad range of artistic mediums and approaches, from glass blowing to wheat pasting to textiles to found objects, Olujimi paves the way for the audience to engage in an open dialogue about how we see and experience the world … and each other.
“Zulu Time is universal coordinated time. It’s the time that all aeronautics, broadcasts, and aviation are synchronized to,” Olujimi says. “For the purpose of this exhibition, it’s the projection of a poly dynamic that says: ‘This is the time you will abide by.’”
The whole notion of time comes out of the British Empire, Olujimi says. Specifically, it references the time at the prime meridian (longitude 0 degrees) — the invisible and ultimately arbitrary line from which all global time zones are calculated. Since Great Britain was the world’s leading maritime power when the concept of latitude and longitude originated, the designation of the prime meridian was at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, England. Olujimi reframes the notion of universal time as an intangible yet ever-present expression of dominance and an imposition of control — left over from the Empire.
Throughout the “Zulu Time” exhibition, Olujimi references the idea of time as a means to investigate invisible hierarchies that benefit some groups of people while disregarding and disadvantaging others. He does so by taking the audience on a metaphorical journey from the cosmic origins of the universe itself, through the structural failures of modernism’s utopic endeavors, and into today’s reckless socio-political climate. He also projects the audience into the unknown spaces of tomorrow.
“As far as the show is concerned: What are the disruptions and what are the aberrations in this time projection? What are the things that make it visible?” Olujimi asks. “Those are some of the things I hope to get at in the show. Geologic time, for instance, doesn’t care about you, human. You just got here. The same thing comes up in dealing with time while you’re in space.”
Zulu Time, as the basis for all civil time, revolves around western norms for structuring a day. Olujimi refuses to anchor his work to a specific moment in time and instead questions our notion of time collapsing past, present, and future.
“There is no seven o’clock. There is no such thing. You set your watch because somebody told your boss you need to be in at this time. It’s trickle-down enforcement. It’s a hierarchy,” he says. “There’s a notion that you have to. Why is it not based upon the body?
“When you think about when you imprison somebody, you literally steal that time away,” he adds. “When you enslave someone, you literally convert their time into your own profit. I took 60 years from you to get this equity.”
Olujimi has always been more than willing to have a conversation on power dynamics and race relations. In a recent issue of Modern Painters, Olujimi was part of a series of dialogues with fellow artists about race, police brutality, and their experiences with law enforcement in the wake of the steady stream of national news stories about unarmed black men and youth being killed by police. Olujimi says that, above all, we must continue to challenge the status quo.
“[Author James] Baldwin has this quote where he talks about enslavement and the day he woke up and realized that he wasn’t a mule and that his people were not mules and that no one wants to be enslaved and no one was doing it because they wanted to. They were doing it because of overwhelming force, the whip. And he says that white Americans knew he wasn’t a mule and that nobody wanted to be enslaved, either. But they still did it,” Olujimi says. “We have to questions things. We had to be human. That’s the thing I like about Baldwin is that he talks about how we have to become more human, and that’s not only challenging but chilling. It starts by thinking about things and questioning things.”
While “Kambui Olujimi: Zulu Time” will be on display until Aug. 13, Olujimi will host an opening reception on Friday, June 2 in the museum lobby. Olujimi will give a 30-minute artist talk in the lecture hall, addressing the exhibition within the context of his larger artistic practice. Throughout the evening, guests will be treated to a concoction of classical violin, hip-hop, trap, jazz, and R&B music from Alida LaCosse and Cooper Talbot.
What is Olujimi’s favorite part of doing what he does for a living?
“I like when I am, well, I call it ‘being lost.’ You bust your hump in order to get opportunities to get into a place where you don’t quite know where you will end up,” he says. “You don’t always know where you are going and you don’t know when you will arrive, but you have to believe in your work. But when you arrive, it’s very nice. That’s one of the greatest feelings of the whole art process.
“Another thing that I really like is the fact that none of this around us existed a year ago. When you’re faced with your own imagination, it’s chilling, actually. This was in my head. It was in my head over and over and it started to move with me and without me,” he adds. “Now, I’m standing in front of it and it has gravity. And now it’s going to do whatever it will. And people will take interesting things from it … maybe things that I may not have even highlighted or seen. It’s powerful.”
“Kambui Olujimi: Zulu Time” exhibit will be on display in the State Street Galley from May 6 through August 13. Admission is free. Olujimi will return to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts to discuss his work on Friday, June 2, at 6:30 p.m.