An Interview with Rudy Shepherd on Empathy, Sanctuary, and What’s Happening in America
April 3, 2018
Our Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi recently joined Rudy Shepherd, 2006 Create Change Artist-in-Residence, for an interview on the occasion of his recent solo show “Everything in the Universe is My Brother,” which was on view from January 13–February 25, 2018 at Smack Mellon.
KI: What are the different bodies of work in your recent exhibition?
RS: The main thing in the exhibition is the portrait series. There’s actually multiple titles for the different projects, like the “Taliban Drawings,” but I pulled them all together as one project. There’s portraits of criminals, victims of crime–but also people like Prince, who are heroes, artists that passed away. There are larger drawings that are part of the same project and they represent moments in time, incidents that wouldn’t be easily represented in just a portrait of one person involved in the story. There are also things that I wanted draw more attention to and have people look at more closely and reconsider. The newest work is the “Holy Mountain Project,” which was inspired by Alexandro Jodorowsky film “The Holy Mountain” and connects with the other main pieces in the show, which are the “healing devices” and “the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber.”
Exhibition view of “Everything in the Universe is My Brother” at Smack Mellon. Image courtesy of Smack Mellon. Photo: Etienne Frossard.
KI: One of the many interesting things about [your recent show] is seeing this full wall of images that has everyone from Loretta Lynch and Steve Bannon to Prince and people who I would have never known, except for the things that happened to them or that they did. It’s a global, national, interwoven story. Is that something that happened naturally by following the news?
RS: I was focused on what’s happening in America. And obviously, another big part of the story which pulled the international aspect in was the Taliban, which is a story happening here. I moved to New York right before 9/11 so that’s been a running theme in our culture and in my time here in New York. So it’s sort of like trying to understand what is going on over there, “who are these people?” There is this larger painting of this one child that died emigrating from Syria—he represents thousands of people. How can I not pay attention to that? We get to talking about the minutiae of what’s going on in our culture, then you’re like wait a minute, thousands of people are dying in Syria. If that were happening here it would be like, everyday we’d be talking about it, but somehow we’re ignoring it. I can’t be complicit in that ignorance of what’s happening in the rest of the world and their plight.
KI: What’s the separation between artist and journalist?
RS: As an artist, there is some space of neutrality but that’s not necessarily true. I think as artists we are always setting ourselves apart, and that separation allows us a space to analyze. A portrait of someone by an artwork, versus a written piece, it’s materiality…You just don’t consume it in the same way, you just don’t consider it in the same way.
KI: You mentioned that you don’t watch the news, you listen to the news and read the news. I am the same, so I never know people’s voices or faces. One of the things that I am thankful for is people who choose to witness. For instance, I haven’t watched any of the [police related] death videos, it’s just not something that I feel is my ability to do.
But I am happy there are people who can. Someone needs to look. So regarding the act of looking and witnessing, do you think about that? Is that part of leading to the healing?
RS: I’m playing a role or serving some function, being a witness, being an interpreter. I’m not doing the news, running down the stories and talking to people directly. I’m taking that information and processing it and there is something that happens in the process of taking a story, listening to find the person, making a portrait of them, there’s a humanizing that happens. But there’s also a filtering. You were talking about death videos, I don’t tend to watch them either, but there was the one when Saddam Hussein was killed, when they captured him and he was killed, I was like, I need to watch this video. You know, there’s this sort of death spectacle, getting joy out of it. I was like, no, this is only going to be around for either today, tomorrow, and then it’s going to be gone. So I made a choice in that moment to see that, to see what that looks like, and it was terrible.
It’s similar to when I did all this work with lynching and Ida B. Wells and the images that were taken of people. A black man would be lynched and you would see 20, 30 people–a little kid, an old man and his wife–and l would wonder, who are these people? How did they end up there? What’s their relationship to what’s going on? They’re like “I’m fully behind this” or “I’m not, I don’t know what I’m doing here,” so thinking about people in this room when this happened, it’s the same kind of thing,looking around the room and saying “who’s here” and “why are they here” and “how did they get here.”
KI: So currently at The LP, we’re continuing with the idea of practicing sanctuary, because it’s not a destination, it’s a journey, it’s a practice. Can you tell us about your Holy Mountain Series from your exhibition and how it fits into the theme of sanctuary?
RS: I watched “The Holy Mountain” by Alexandro Jodorowsky which plays with Christianity, and new age methodology, very metaphorical and beautiful and weird and dark. And within the last chapter of the film, he’s talking about how all around the world there are Holy Mountains and you must go to them and I’m like [gasp], it’s like being pulled into the movie and called to action. Yes, I have to go… I need to go to these Holy Mountains.
Rudy Shepherd’s Alejandro Jodorowski as the Alchemist in The Holy Mountain (2016)
Rudy in front of Mount Everest from the Holy Mountain Series (2016). Photo Credit: Kemi Ilesanmi
KI: So you have started the journey and you’ve visited a few?
RS: Yeah, I’ve visited three of them. I started by making paintings of them and doing research and finding out, “what’s a holy mountain?” And realizing they are connected to a lot of different cultures, faiths and traditions, whether it be Native American, Hindu, or Christian, all over the world. I’ve been filming there and photographing and performing, bringing my “Healer” character to these places. In a way, the “Healer” represents me trying to seek these places out, these sacred places and find some source of power that might nourish me so I can continue the work that I’m doing…I think it’s all just exhausting, paying attention, keeping up, commenting… it just feels never ending, and I think we need that nourishment. That’s where that work is as much for other people as it is for me.
Rudy Shepherd’s Devil’s Tower (from the Holy Mountain series) (2016)
KI: So thinking back to your project Drawing Cart with The LP in 2006, are there things that resonate from that project? Is there a way some of those experiences working in your own neighborhood and being visible in that way that show up in how you do other kinds of projects or now in your work or life?
RS: It was definitely an experiment doing a project in my neighborhood. I was there making drawings and trying to get people to do the same, and finding out there are limitations to that–it’s all contextual. Somebody walking down the street in their neighborhood, on the way wherever they’re going, doesn’t want to risk the vulnerability there, right on the street, and make a drawing… I was like “oh, okay” that’s information.
Rudy Shepherd’s Drawing Cart (2006)
It was portraits of people that I was inspired by, Frederick Douglass, people like that. But people connecting to that, people looking over and saying, “hey that’s Frederick Douglass! I know who that it is.” Even walking down the street they can look over and see collections of people that I put together: Angela Davis, Frederick Douglas, MLK…They think, “he’s got a sense of humor, he’s reading stuff,” they’re taking that in and looking at me, and everybody wanting to buy the drawings, but also kind of wanting to interact [with me]. My work has always been about trying to communicate. [My LP Project] was definitely a launching of “keep doing this,” people can follow you.
Public projects are an interesting way of getting the work out of the studio, out of the gallery structure…
Close-up of sketches from Rudy Shepherd’s Drawing Cart (2006)
KI: Drawing Cart was Instagram before Instagram. You put a drawing out within 24 hours! Are there ways you continue to do work that touches communities–the non-art types–like you did through your LP project?
RS: This way of working has continued with the “Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber”…I feel like the time when it happened in the best way was with the version that I did for Harlem. I wanted to do it in my old neighborhood where there is no art… where there’s a swimming pool and normal people, not an art audience. So they’re not looking for it, it’s going to be interjected in their everyday lives.
Usually, if an artist goes and works in a community that is not used to art, then they simplify things so that they can understand. I don’t want to do that, I want to make this crazy weird sculpture, put it out there, do this crazy weird performance and trust that people are going to get it and respond. People watch movies, listen to music, they have all the tools they need. To assume, that those who live near 147th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard don’t get it or can’t follow along will be minimizing who they are. What was so interesting about this experience that makes me know if this was a success or not, is that as I was making this sculpture in their space, people were asking “what are you doing, who are you,” everyday, all day long. They’re like “I know its a sculpture, what’s the sculpture” and “you’re going to tell me what this thing is, what are you up to, what are you making?” I would tell them and they would be like “Alright, tell me more, tell me more” So I was like “yes, yes” it makes sense to them. They didn’t just want the superficial answer, they wanted to know why am doing it, “what does it means to you”? And that was so amazing. Again, another experiment that forms where things go next definitely started around the corner at The Laundromat Project.
“Opening and Induction Ceremony of Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber at Jackie Robinson Park, Harlem (2016). Photo Credit: Scott Rudd”
KI: What do you think is the role of the artist in making a better world?
RS: Sometimes you can feel you are marginalized, like you’re not part of the dialogue in the same way, or not taken seriously, but within that sort or marginality there is all this freedom. I feel like as an artist, I’ve been given a voice. [Through an] exhibition I’ve been given a voice; I have to use it. A month and a half, you’re given this space, you can do whatever you want in here, so my responsibility is to do something that pushes the bounds. I don’t know what fix there is but I know people need to be more empathetic and lead with love and not simplify the way that they look at people or things. I am challenging people to do that, but knowing that at an art gallery everybody is going to be sort of lefty liberal…So, can you empathize with Donald Trump? Can you empathize with Steve Bannon? Can you empathize with Dylann Roof? I am challenging these people knowing that’s the context I am in, as well as putting forward a Trayvon Martin, or something like that. I want to make them think about this again… “that was really bad what happened to that kid, right?”…We’re talking about empathy, but let’s not wait until it’s our problem to deal with it to express empathy.
Rudy in front of as series of his work in “Everything in the Universe is My Brother” at Smack Mellon. Photo Credit: Kemi Ilesanmi
KI: Do you own the term political artist, do you own the term activist? Are you comfortable with the term being attached to your name and/or your work?
RS: Political artist for sure. I would call myself that. Activist, I feel like I have to do more work. I think I have always identified with [being a political artist], that’s what sucked me into art; people like David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall. Even though what that might look like changes over time, it always comes back to being about dialogue, about communication. About meaningful things that are changing people lives. I take it on for better or worse, when it’s in fashion when it’s not in fashion which is most of the time. All of sudden, Donald Trump gets elected and my work is “timely.” If I’m asked why do I do that, I respond, “because I’ve been doing it for so many years.”