Azikiwe Mohammed is one of the very few NYC artists you will meet to be born and raised in TriBeCa. Having dedicated over half his life to working for the Church St School for Music and Art, he shares with us his work, his aspirations and his fantasy world on a winter Saturday morning. Our journey takes us from TriBeCa to a thrift store in Brooklyn.
So, you’re based in TriBeCa?
Yes. I was born and raised in this neighborhood. The Pre-school I went to is a few blocks from here.
Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s from TriBeCa. It always seemed like a neighborhood that rich people who work in finance move into. I noticed on your website that you even have a project dedicated to the neighborhood…
Correct. I was talking to people about this place, and it is commonly assumed that no one is “from” TriBeCa. The neighborhood has become mostly a stronghold for rich people. I was —and still am— interested in the people that are native to the area. I’m interested in people who are from here just like I am. Representation is important. I photographed them inside their homes, as well as in places of personal importance when their homes were not accessible.
When I met you, I got to know you through your Black Internet project that was on display at last year’s Spring/Break Art Show. You were showing tapestries of jailed hip hop artists. You had these wacky, digitally constructed compositions. That project was a radical shift from your previous work… How did that come about?
There’s so much appreciation for black culture. It’s also been culture that has been appropriated numerous times. The problem is that when it’s released into the ether, it is usually stripped of proper understanding as well as its original teachings. You can put on and take off a coat at will, but you can’t “take off” being black. You wake up wearing that coat every day.
The first time this actuality showed up in my work, was with the tapestries. They’re about a handful of rappers that got incarcerated and became famous after their incarceration. I made these digital collages that I turned into these tapestries by submitting them to a website that makes them for you. Since the people I was talking about came from the Internet, the Internet had to be the location of creation as well. I was thinking about heroic figures in history that would go on conquests and come back home after their long journeys. These conquerors would be greeted with celebrations and have their achievements immortalized with tapestries. Currently, some of our most famous historical figures can be seen as these mythological creatures living a live-streamed fable that we are helping write. The location for many of these fables is the Internet.
If all these things are happening in this made up space, then, how do we see it and touch it? How can we touch our time? At this point, when you look at a pizza, you think to yourself: food. The second you see a cat next to that pizza, all of a sudden you’re thinking of the Internet. It’s amazing how these two physical items can you make you think of a non-physical space when placed next to each other. Think about when you go on vacation somewhere. You get a postcard, a magnet, etc. The signifiers of a destination reached. If that place were to be the Internet, it makes me woner: what would those things look like and what visual language would you use to create those things? Also, what would those objects be?
You talk about creating a new world in a sense. What is the premise behind that?
As we all have seen, the past year has been very rough for Blacks in the United States. As a Black man, I don’t feel safe. For all I know, I can walk out of the house and get shot for no reason. The Black community has always known this. Up to now this has been a very un-closely guarded Black secret. We’re always aware of the fact that this can happen at any moment. Brother Garner and Brother Michael get new company every day. Most times when it happens the news gets swept under the rug. I now make rugs. I will create this alternate world where we will be safe, no rugs needed. Trying to imagine what that world would look like and what it would consist of. I came up with the name “New Davonhaime”. The name is a combination of five US cities with the highest African-American populations: New Orleans, LA, Detroit, MI, Jackson, MS, Birmingham, AL and Savannah, GA. While all these cities are home, they haven’t served us properly yet. Not separately at least. Maybe if we combine all of them we can create something new. We can actualize the promise passed to us from our elders. A friend pointed out to me the name “New Davonhaime” is a loose German translation of “new home from here on out.” It’s really wild how that worked out because I wasn’t aware of that at all.
How are those images constructed? I mean, you’re sourcing them from the Internet, but do they also exist exclusively on the Internet or will you make physical, tangible objects?
Both. A lot of the source material consists of photos that I make myself. Some of these photos are of objects I find when scouring the shelves of different thrift stores around the city. All the elements in these photographs come from many different sources. The final destination for this new batch of fictionalized landscape work is C-Prints. I start by making the collages; I then invert the image and turn it into an orange tinted, regular looking negative. Once I have printed my negatives out, I take them to a traditional darkroom and make C-Prints. Using film recording as a legitimization process allows me to talk about these like the things I know they are: Landscape photographs from a place I am dying to visit. A place a lot of us are dying because we can’t visit. They’re all still very new. I only started printing these a few weeks ago and it took a while to figure out what they should look like. Postcards have been another destination for this work, which I think suits the concept. If I sent you a postcard from New Davonhaime, then that would mean that I’ve been there, no?
Would you go as far as establishing an actual state? Would you have a flag, a constitution? Are you the President? Is it a dictatorship, a democracy, an anarchy?
The flag is getting made now. As far as the regime goes, I can’t make that decision. I’m just creating a place that I feel should exist that maybe does or might already. I feel like I’m more pointing at a thing as opposed to creating it. I’m using a language that is already out there. It’s not really up to me because I’m not the only person who lives there. If I were, then I could decide to be President, which is a position I’m not interested in. Seeing as this revolves around other people, they need to decide how it is that they want to run their world.
How did the 15 years that you’ve spent teaching at this school, influence the way you approach your work?
It’s wild to think about, but I’ve been doing this for half my life! I started working at the school, helping out at birthday parties when I was 16. Then, I moved into the Arts Express program, the toddler art program and now am working in the afterschool program. Most recently my friend Z and I started a teen program called 7eventytwo. I’ve pretty much worked in every program we have here. The conversations I have with the kids I work with, crossing a large age spectrum are pretty wild. A lot of these ideas and complex notions that I talk about are things that I’ve discussed with the kids first. I’m not going to hold anything back from them. The people I respected most and learned the most from as a kid myself were straight shooters that were interested in what I was interested in and had something to offer.
What inspires you most about New York?
Inspiration is always a difficult word for me. I think New York is this place where you’ll always find people doing a million things at once all the time. And there will always be a way for you to get anything done. Like for the “New Davonhaime” photos, I’ve had to go to four different Staples and a bunch of Kinkos. I was in Midtown at 11:30 PM trying to get this done, and everything was open and services were readily available. If you need to get something done. New York City is the type of place that will allow you to do so with very few obstacles.
Azikiwe Mohammed graduated from Bard College in 2005 where he studied photography and fine arts. Since then, he has shown these things in galleries. A freelance photographer and illustrator, he lives and works in New York City. He is a former resident of the ESKFF Foundation at Mana Fine Arts.