Otabenga Jones & Associates, formed in 2002, is a Houston-based collective of artists Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans, and Robert A. Pruitt. The collective operates under the advisement of artist and educator Otabenga Jones, whose parents were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a Black Nationalist organization founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914. Jones’s namesake is Ota Benga, a member of the Batwa people from the former Belgian Congo, who was brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 as part of an anthropological exhibit. Two years later he was put on display in the monkey house at the New York Zoological Park to illustrate human evolution.2 Sourcing from this deep well of history surrounding Jones, the Associates engage new ways to address black representation and ideology in art, promote the core principles of black radical tradition, and “teach the truth to the young black youth.”3 Otabenga Jones & Associates identify and integrate within their work a shared repertoire of images and objects that urge viewers to question dominant historical perspectives. They aim to restore agency to the individual, mobilize time travel by sourcing and re-presenting African American history from 1960 to the present, and situate visual art within the complexities of contemporary society.
The group’s myriad pedagogical methods manifest in writings, musical interventions, and installations, and explore the influence of African American history and culture. In 2005 they organized a public happening to respond to the controversial exhibition African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in order to question who determines the value of African objects. The artists termed this happening a “seen strategy,” emphasizing that the intervention was widely visible.4 Then, in Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates, which was on view at the Menil Collection in 2007, the artists presented an installation of books, objects, artworks, and artifacts which were united by their connections to black history and culture. These objects, both ancient and recent, were all selected from the Otabenga Jones & Associates’ archive and from Menil Collection treasure rooms.
The artists culled and sifted through the elements of this exhibition in a manner recalling similar projects by Andy Warhol at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society, both of which presented objects mined from institutions’ collections in ways that would not have been otherwise orchestrated from within. Otabenga Jones & Associates organized a series of lectures in conjunction with the exhibition that included activist poets Amiri Baraka (1934–2014) and Obidike Kamau, artist Terry Adkins (1953–2014), professor and photographer Deborah Willis, and former Black Panther and political prisoner Jihad Abdul Mumit. By juxtaposing historical narratives with objects and ephemera and presenting public programs in a classroom-like setting, Otabenga Jones & Associates did more than “teach the truth to the young black youth.” They also managed to teach people who weren’t young or black.5
In addition to showing work in formal spaces like the Menil and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (where their work was showcased in the 2006 Whitney Biennial), Otabenga Jones & Associates has worked in alternative spaces and community-based arts organizations in Houston, including DiverseWorks and Project Row Houses. From March 29 to June 22, 2014, Round 40: Monuments: Right Beyond the Site at Project Row Houses featured Otabenga Jones & Associates’ attempts to counter erasures in Houston’s historic Third Ward.
In response to demographic shifts, housing redevelopments, and expansions at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, Otabenga Jones & Associates identified five sites that have contributed substantially to the fabric of the neighborhood, all of which have maintained resilience through struggle despite the economic forces converging against them. This installation marked the first time all seven row houses, all of which are devoted to art or art installations, have been given over to a single artist or art collective. Inside each of the houses Otabenga Jones & Associates represented a neighborhood site, some of which are no longer extant: the Blue Triangle YWCA, the former Lanier East Hall Men’s Dormitory at Texas Southern University, the Carl B. Hampton Free Clinic, the Progressive Amateur Boxing Association, Unity National Bank, and the work of sign painters Israel McCloud, Bobby Ray, and Walter Stanciell.
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Title adapted from a lecture given by Emory Douglas at Fisk University in 1972, which focused on the role of art in the struggle for survival.
Michelle White, "Pedagogy, Poetry, and Politics in the (Museum) Classroom," Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates exhibition gallery guide, Menil Collection, Houston, 2007.
From a line spit by Russell Tyrone Jones (1958-2004), best known by his stage name Ol' Dirty Bastard (or ODB), and American rapper and occasional producer. Jones was one of the founding members of the Wu-Tang Clan, a rap group primarily from Staten Island, New York that first rose to mainstream prominence with their 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Franklin Sirmans and Otabenga Jones & Associates, "Correspondence," Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates exhibition gallery guide, Menil Collection, Houston, 2007.
Kelly Klaasmeyer, "Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates," Houston Press, December 5, 2007.