Masud Olufani is an Atlanta based multidisciplinary artist. His multidisciplinary practice explores the resonance of memory; the narrative traditions of African and African American folklore; and methodologies of constructive resilience implemented by marginalized communities to maintain cohesion and ensure survival. He works with a disparate assortment of materials and studio methods to investigate how objects operate in both the objective and subjective realities, and how history tethers those objects to individual and collective memory. Thematically his work addresses issues such as social marginalization; racial justice, and iterations of spiritual resistance. His devotion to craft and the slow methodical realization of an idea in visual form reflects his belief in the maker’s ability to imbue the object with spirit through physical labor, fueled by vision and creativity.
He is a graduate of Morehouse College, and The Savannah College of Art and Design where he earned an M.F.A. in sculpture in 2013. Masud has exhibited his work in group and solo shows nationally and internationally. He is the 2021-22’ inaugural Visual Arts Fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. The artist has completed residencies at The Vermont Studio Center; The Hambidge Center for Arts and Sciences; and Creative Currents in Portobello, Panama. He is a 2017 Southern Arts Prize State Fellow; a recipient of a 2015 and 2018 Idea Capital Grant; a Southwest Airlines Art and Social Engagement grant; and a recipient of 2015-16’ MOCA GA Working Artist Project Grant. He is the creative director of Blocked: A Global Healing Project, a multimedia performance created to memorialize spaces marked by the trauma of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As a writer, Masud has published articles for Burnaway; Baha’i Teachings; and is a featured contributor for the Jacob Lawrence Struggle Series catalog, produced to coincide with a major exhibition of the Struggle Series paintings. His untitled memoir is currently in development.
Artadia: You received the Atlanta Artadia Award in 2021. Can you tell us about the work you submitted and how it has shifted in the year since receiving the award?
Masud Olufani: My work is multimedia and uses a lot of different studio methodologies. In terms of process, there’s ongoing use of audio work, film, sculpture, printmaking, some drafting, and painted imagery as well. I’m always interested in exploiting the multiple ways that a human being interacts with an object, not just the visual but also – “does it have a sound? Does it have a smell? Is there a video component engaged with part of the work?” Of course not all the work has those elements, but increasingly it’s finding its way into some of the work.
Since getting the Award, I did a residency for a year at Emory University as a teaching fellow. I noticed a bit of a shift as I was doing the residency. I’m seeing a more conceptual vein entering the work, which has been really interesting. There’s less of a concern with representational imagery, although there are fragments of the representational world, but I’m less interested in the human form and more interested in the idea.
A: Some objects are more potent in some senses than others – and readily experienced in one sense over another. When you’re thinking about the conception of an artwork, how do you go about choosing the form in which you best want someone to experience it?
MO: It’s not fixed. It depends on the particular idea, which is usually generated through reading, something I’ve seen, or something I’ve heard in conversation. As these different touchstones of inspiration have a resonance within me, I think “What would be an interesting way to think about this idea?”
I think such a key part of the process is just to stay open. And to really allow – it sounds cliche and esoteric- but to allow the idea to have a life of its own, and then to have a conversation with the idea. And then sooner or later it kind of articulates the best way for me to engage around that idea in visual form.
A: You’ve described your multidisciplinary practice as a “slow methodical realization of an idea in visual form” – what does this process look and feel like to you? And where do you gain your inspiration?
MO: I’ve been a huge fan of the New York Times ever since I got out of high school when I started reading on my own, for pleasure. I find a lot of ideas in reading the Times or reading historical books, things that relate to topics that I’m interested in and concerned about. I don’t read with the explicit intention of getting an idea for a work of art. But, I’ve done it long enough now to know it’s an integral part of the process. I don’t have to worry about being intentional in terms of reading, or read with the anticipation it’s going to be the outcome. I know invariably that it’s going to be the outcome, I just don’t know how and in what way it will present itself, and how that formulation is going to take place. There is this archive of information that builds up inside of you. I keep articles, I highlight books, all of that becomes part of that archive and I can mine that archive as material to pull from.
I find that being in the discourse with other artists and thinkers are rich spaces to draw inspiration from. There’s also stuff that happens in meditation, reflection and prayer in the morning as well where I find that the ideas become clearer. There’s a filtering process that comes through just being still. Then the idea begins to set in with you.
A: Can you tell us about your recent piece, The Rhythm Section?
MO: It’s a piece about music and rhythm. It has to do with jazz, with ancient or more traditional African rhythms, and it also has to do with the often overlooked role that women play in the sustaining of community. It is about how a very mundane exercise like pounding grain becomes a key link in the chain of the community and society. There’s an inherent dignity about that kind of labor. The mechanical pounding sets up a kind of rhythmic, syncopated repetition that speaks to hip hop, jazz, r&b, spirituals and the blues. That rhythm, that drumming – if you will – is the basis of the African diaspora’s engagement and innovation with music.
Although, in a lot of indigenous communities – be they African, be they Native American, be they indigenous to Latin America and the Caribbean – they’re matrilineal communities. So there’s already a historic reverence for the role that women play in the community. But The Rhythm Section is situated in the West, which is historically male-dominated and has diminished the profound contributions women have made to society and continue to make. In our consciousness here in the West, it’s a much more profound statement to make.
A: How do you reckon with the translation of a community based practice into the locale of an art institution?
MO: I think these systems are imperfect. We can only work with the constructs we have, or we can invent a new construct – which then takes time to gain root and credibility in the society in which we live. The best that I can do as an artist is to be inspired by whatever it is and to hopefully – if it’s a cultural practice or has a symbolic meaning as well as a practical meaning for a community – give it dignity through the way that I represent that thing. That speaks about the vitality, the brilliance, the energy, the resiliency of a particular group or culture.
A: How important (or not) is it for your work to be legible? And to who?
MO: When I was younger and in college or graduate school, it was important for me to be much more clear about what the meaning was. I think the first obligation of the artist is to make a thing that’s interesting enough that people want to spend time with it. If the thing, apart from context, apart from the deep meaning of it, doesn’t have a formal dimension to it that draws you in – I think I’ve kind of failed at my obligation as an artist.
Then, it’s about exploring the meanings that the object is imbued with and the multiplicity of those meanings. Some of the work has a very specific cultural context – there are elements of the Black community or of the African diaspora that are an important part of the work. I just went to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the Guadalupe Maravilla show. He’s from Latin America and creates these incredibly beautiful sculptural objects with sound about healing. Just walking in the space, I was really moved by the work. I didn’t know anything about the cultural context, he and I are from two completely different cultural backgrounds, but I could feel the spirit and energy and the quality of the maker’s hand, and that drew me in. And then from there I wanted to explore what the meaning was. What does it mean to put a zipper on an avocado skin? The richness of the quality of the work is universal. That anybody, no matter where they come from can recognize- “there’s something about this thing, I don’t know what it is, I don’t understand it, but I kinda want to spend time here for a minute.” If a person is inclined to explore deeper, then those other meanings may unfold over time. And it may not be in the first viewing, they may have to leave and come back. But if they leave and come back I know I’m doing something right, I’m hitting something within that person that compels them to come back and spend some more time with the work.
A: You explore linguistics in works like Haulin’ ass and Whip. What was the impetus for these works?
MO: [My inspiration] is the richness of the way that human beings use language. It’s the complexity of the Black vernacular tradition and the way that language becomes a modality of constructive resilience in the journey from the West Coast of Africa where you have all these different tribal groups getting together, whether they be Mandinka, Twi, Limba, Mende. All of them speaking different languages in the belly of the slave ship – finding creative and innovative ways to communicate with one another. Initially that’s done through the drum. But as they are here in America, in the slave system, the owners, the overseers, recognize that they are communicating through the drum. We don’t understand the language of the drum, and our suspicion is they are using it as a means to possibly fomit revolution and resistance. So they take it. Then everybody has to communicate using the English language and as the generations move forward in the American arena, those African linguistic systems are lost in memory.
Then how do we get creative and innovative with the English language to take the place of the drum? They start to sing, doing the field hummer songs encoded with messages of resistance and transcendence, both spiritually and physically. The tradition of being subversive through language begins there in America. It develops even further in the blues and in jazz. For example, a “cat” is yes, a cat, but a “cat” is also a person – referring to a coolness or a chillness – an equilibrium of being in the face of adversity and difficulty. Then, of course, hip hop is a whole other addition to the lexicon. It’s always been interesting to me how the language continues to expand, continues to develop with multiple meanings.
Whip functioned in one reality as an instrument of punishment, of abuse, and of destruction, but in southern hip hop it refers to one’s car – something that is constructive and indicates a certain kind of economic advancement in my community. I’m interested in the tension between those two realities, how they collapse time between the past and the present, and how those things collide.
A: How many works are in this series? Is it ongoing?
MO: There’s about 20. It’s one of those series that I’ll probably go back to again and again. Initially, I viewed these works as a way to let communities who perhaps felt themselves to be locked out of the language – those vernacular expressions – to find a way in. So usually the definition was part of the piece itself. In the future, I may not include the definition. I may just have the viewer come in and arrive at their own understanding of what this means to them. I have to determine for myself if it’s more important for me to show how that couplet works within the Black context, or if it’s enough for me to present a representation and allow the viewer to consider where they’re aligned or disjointed.
A: What are you working on now?
MO: I’m going to Africa for the first time in November, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ll be there for 13 days, in Sierra Leone. I found out my cultural heritage is Mende from Sierra Leone. That’s as much as an ancestral mapping and closing the loop on some questions that I have as it is also kind of a sensory explosion for me. There will be multiple points of inspiration I can draw from, consign to the archive, and come back to. Because my practice involves a few kinds of creative outlets, I kind of view the break between the making as a regenerative process within the writing. The engagement in the writing will inform the making when I get back to it.