Montclair conceptual artists Mendi + Keith Obadike are displaying their work, “American Cypher,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The site-specific work is a suite of projects that respond to American stories about race and DNA.
In this work the artists reflect on the role of DNA in contemporary American culture through five stories that hinge on deciphering genetic code.
These stories include the racial politics of genetic researcher James Watson, the ancestry of Oprah Winfrey, the use of DNA in the criminal justice system, and the lineage of president Barack Obama. At the center of the project is the story of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore several children by President Thomas Jefferson.
The artists made original recordings of Hemings’ last remaining possession, a small bell given to her by Martha Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s wife and Hemings’ half sister) that is on exhibit today at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia. From these digitally altered recordings they created a soundscape that is part of the installation at the Studio Museum. The artists use the genetic code of the Hemings and Jefferson family lines as a musical score to generate the soundscape.
Mendi and Keith Obadike, an Igbo Nigerian American couple, are interdisciplinary artists whose music, performance works and conceptual media artworks have been exhibited internationally. Their work generated much discussion online and offline when they offered Keith’s “blackness” for sale on eBay in 2001 as an Internet performance. They were awarded the Pick Laudati Digital Art Award from Northwestern University for Big House / Disclosure, a 200-hour sound installation commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. Other awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship for New Media Art, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize for Mendi’s book of poetry Armor and Flesh.