The first thing Malcolm Mobutu Smith

shows me when I walk into his studio, on the Indiana University

Bloomington campus, is what looks like an architectural model carved

out of soft clay. With its irregular, jutting angles it looks as if

it could — if one day realized as an actual building —

resemble the Indiana University Art Museum designed by world-renowned

architect I.M. Pei.

But Smith isn’t an architect;

he’s a ceramics artist. The aforementioned structure will soon

be fired in a kiln and have a white, sandpapery surface which

visitors can make marks on during Smith’s exhibition Inner

City Inspiration: An Artist’s Evolution in Clay, at the

Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA). This show, opening

First Friday, April 1, will also feature an actual graffiti mural, as

well as a wide sampling of Smith’s sculptural and vessel work

from his past 20 years as artist and educator. Smith is currently

associate professor of ceramic art at IU Bloomington.

One work in particular in Smith’s

studio reminds me of vessels of his I’ve seen before. Entitled

“Mystic Cloud #1,” it consists of a white, helmet-sized

base with a rounded surface and fluid red, orange, and black graffiti

markings. There’s a gray horn-shaped extension out of this

“cloud” that Smith uses as a handle when he picks it up

and shows it to me.

He also shows me a work in ceramic

entitled “We Did It?” which features a stereotypical

portrayal of an African-American gleaned from early 20th Century

comic books. The title of the piece, he tells me, suggests an

uncertainty about the significance of the Obama election in light of

the racially tinged backlash it has engendered.

And finally, I come upon his “Doppod,”

sculpture. With its triple bulbs in a tripod form, this work looks to

me like a cross between the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine space

station and an ancient Israelite oil lamp. In fact, Smith used

computer programs to design this work, composed of powdered gypsum,

but did not touch it at all during its creation. It was “printed”

three-dimensionally — graffiti-like designs on its surface and

all — in a process called rapid prototyping.

These works and more will be on view at

iMOCA from April 1 through May 14. This exhibition proposes to chart

the evolution of his highly contemporary — and often

forward-leaning — work. But when I sit down to talk with Smith,

it’s evident that he’s also an artist with a thorough

grounding in the tradition and practice of ceramic art that stretches

back to the beginnings of civilization.

NUVO: Your Backjumps show

at the Ruschman Gallery [in December, 2008] certainly expanded my

notion of what ceramics could be.

Smith: This show will be a

reprise of some of the work from Ruschman because the actual thesis

of this show is to show the chronology from my inspiration from

hip-hop culture and graffiti specifically and how that affected the

way my aesthetic has grown in ceramics. So we’re going to see

works that probably cover 20 years of my life as a ceramicist.

I’m trying to make a visual case

for seeing the movements and the abstractions and the improvisations

in my clay works and how they literally fold off my looking at

graffiti. By having a real graffiti mural in the space — it’s

32 feet long and 8 feet high and presents the identities of four

different graffiti artists [the FAB Crew] — and by having my

ceramic works in literal proximity to it, it should all be

self-explanatory, but there will be some didactic information to make

certain things explicit.

NUVO: Do you know anything about

the street art scene in Indianapolis?

Smith: I don’t, but I just

met the guys that I worked with. The FAB Crew consists of the best

graffiti artists in town and I lucked out in having a connection with

them through a guy here in Bloomington. They worked with me on the

panel images.

NUVO: Describe your

collaboration with IPS School #2 Center for Inquiry Grade School.

Smith: Mostly we wanted the

students to interact with and see live, and in person, some real

active practicing graffiti artists. To hear from the horse’s

mouth, so to speak, what it is to be a graffiti artist. So we shared

with them a little bit about the history, a little bit about why we

do graffiti and the actual process; what the actual nuts and bolts of

doing a piece from sketches to outline sketches with spray paint, the

fill-ins, the backgrounding; and then the most important part is the

final outline…

So we gave them a very compressed

introduction to all that and then we let them handle some spray paint

and actually work on the wall for a little while. We gave as many of

the kids who wanted to a chance to use a spray can and see just how

difficult it is to control a line, an edge or to create a certain

kind of effects with a spray can. And then I went over most of what

they did. Which they were aware of from the beginning…I did

manage to preserve quite a bit of the backgrounding in my portion of

the wall.

NUVO: This is the mural we’ll

be able to see at the iMOCA show?

Smith: Yes.

NUVO: Mark Ruschman’s

curating this show, but it sounds like it might be more accurate to

say that it was a collaboration between you two.

Smith: It’s a

collaboration but he envisioned it… with iMOCA being such a

street level museum. You can walk right in off Virginia Avenue. He

proposed it to me. He saw a connection with what I do in my work and

said “Here’s an opportunity…” The real

thrust that Mark had in mind … was bringing this artwork that

had its origins in the street, graffiti, into the museum.

NUVO: Can you describe your

growing up and your interest in graffiti and how that evolved and

affected your work as a ceramicist?

Smith: As a young person, let’s

say 13, 14 — I’d already been committed to becoming an

artist. My parents were artists. But I bumped into graffiti in a

strange, sort of ironic way in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in a very

affluent part, in the Main Line area of Pennsylvania. I felt an

immediate connection to the kind of energy, the improvised character

that is graffiti lettering. The magic of someone taking their name or

their graffiti nom de plume and inventing on it over and over

again.... Trying to come up with more and more originality.

Originality is one of the ethics in all

of hip-hop culture that drives it…. But because of that and

because I saw the visual quality—the fact that these are flat

works of art and things are twisting around and letters…you

knew you were dealing with letters. And so once you found the rhythm

and the particular graffiti artist’s method, you wonder as to

how they came up with a consistent design theme for that particular

piece of graffiti….

I’ve been using that as sort of

an artistic muse for how I improvise when I’m doing my vessels.

The vessels I make are based on real vessels, like how graffiti

artists use the alphabet, so there’s a certain syntax and

structure to a pot that I wanted to turn and bend with the same kind

of flavor that I saw in graffiti. I’ve been doing that ever


NUVO: Do you see any

commonalities between the designs that you see in Chinese and African

potteries and the graffiti art that you admire?

Smith: Yes. I definitely look

for and see sort of a consciousness of graphic sensibilities that are

similar or propagate through time in similar ways — rhythms and

arcs that sort of bounce off each other both in African pots and in

contemporary graffiti. In African music and contemporary hip-hop and

dance there’s a breadth of improvisation that’s [also] in

jazz or in Negro spirituals that builds out of African music and is

sort of an unbroken legacy in contemporary music that the language of

impulse and beat.

There’s a visual kind of beat

that happens in graffiti that is unmistakable… a similar kind

of beat goes on in the literal music and dance of hip-hop music. In

Chinese graphic sensibilities there’s always been a strong

sense of declaring a literal outline of form in Chinese imagery and

that is something that I wouldn’t say has directly influenced

contemporary graffiti art, but is definitely something that they

would appreciate.

NUVO: Tell me about your work

dealing with stereotypes.

Smith: My newest work is dealing

with social stereotypes in very blunt way. I’m recycling old

cartoon images of African-Americans and they’re being put on

the new pieces in a painterly way. The work still has a sort of

jazzy, improvised language of form. And then there’s this blunt

very derogatory image of African-American plastered on the surface of

it…. I’m using a jigaboo character… another

general term for it…. His name’s Little Eight Ball. He’s

bald-headed, black guy, comes right out of the 1940s comic books. But

essentially he’s the same thing as the Sambo character except

that he doesn’t have any hair.

They’re meant to be comic relief,

they’re meant to be buffoons, they’re meant to be funny

things and they’re also nonhuman, drawn in a very subhuman way

that was done throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s in comic book imagery

and comic strips…. My interest in doing this was brought upon

directly out of Obama’s ascendancy to power.

So I’m sort of saying we’ve

got Obama in the White House now, but don’t forget that this

stuff just hasn’t fallen to the wayside just because we have

this man in the seat.

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Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.

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