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
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
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
NUVO: This is the mural we’ll
be able to see at the iMOCA show?
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
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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