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Maverick Visions : He Shares Village Tales Via Videotech

Third in a series on creative people out of the mainstream.

July 22, 1986|DON SNOWDEN

"Artists have a real struggle in this city because they are up against Hollywood," claimed video/performance artist Ulysses Jenkins Jr. in an editing room at the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design.

"What Hollywood represents, especially in my work, is the classic plantation mentality. Although people aren't necessarily enslaved by it, people enslave themselves to it because they're told how fantastic it is to help manifest these illusions for a corporate sponsor."

Like other mavericks with creative visions outside the artistic mainstream, Jenkins' aesthetic passion drives him, despite slim prospects for commercial reward.

While Jenkins may be no more or less pure or passionate about his work than other more commercial or critically successful artists, he's a part of the creative scene that is seldom seen or written about.

Jenkins, 39, chose the maverick's role by resisting that commercial siren song, but Hollywood imagery plays a major role in his video work nevertheless. Combatting cultural stereotypes and the media saturation of modern society are longstanding themes for him.

He has adopted the persona of a video "griot," the name given the village storyteller who passes on the cultural heritage in African society, in dedicating himself to fashioning a Third World video vision.

"I was taking some acting classes at one point but, when I looked at the actual activity level of black actors, I realized I'd never work," Jenkins declared. "As a video artist, I can produce my own productions and take them in any direction I want.

"I can address any issue and I don't have to wait for their (the studios) big OK. I thought this was a land of freedom, and video allows me that freedom and opportunity that I can create for myself and at least feel that part of being an American."

Raised in an integrated environment in Los Angeles, Jenkins received his college education at all-black Southern University in Louisiana during the height of the civil rights movement and counterculture explosion. Making the gallery rounds after returning here with a fine-arts degree in the late '60s, he was confronted with a Catch-22 situation that channeled him down the maverick road.

"The problem for most Third World artists is that the history you study is a western history," he said. "You may end up a good craftsman and have good ideas but the education and institutions really set you up to be an imitator, not an originator. I needed to know how to connect with my own heritage aesthetically."

Jenkins initially pursued that connection by working on some of the earliest community mural projects in Los Angeles. The prospect of working in the new, creatively wide-open video field became more alluring to him in the early '70s.

"I was interested in a broader audience, so the connection with the tube was a natural," Jenkins declared. "Because of public access on cable, you could go out and shoot something about the community and they'd play it.

"For the first time, people in the community had access to television and I was fascinated by it. As it progressed and entrepreneurship got involved in it, they started knocking the community people out by saying their production values weren't as good as the standard television offering."

That development and a general disgust with the U.S. political climate prompted Jenkins to leave the mainland in 1973 for a period of spiritual renewal. He spent 2 1/2 years living in a Hawaiian commune and also briefly became involved with a Christian organization there.

He returned to Los Angeles in 1975 and spent the next year working on murals. He switched back to video and performance art when he was accepted at the Otis/Parsons, graduating in 1979 with a master's degree in intermedia.

"Video is like automobiles, basically," he reflected. "It's a medium based on technology and, as the technology changes and artists get access to it, their forms and modes of expression tend to change as well.

"That presents a sociopolitical relationship to your work: If you don't have the money to spend on the special effects, does this nullify your statement?"

The potential exclusion due to lack of funds hasn't dissuaded him from pursuing his goal of disseminating alternative information through his videos. He calls his finished tapes "rituals" and dubbed his personal style of fast, choppy edits "doggereal."

With teaching credits at UC San Diego, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Antioch College (Ohio) and the Otis/Parsons, Jenkins has fared better than most video artists in surviving economically without straying from his chosen medium. He also won three National Endowment for the Arts grants between 1978 and 1982.

But the academic acceptance didn't help when he confronted the lack of public exposure affecting virtually all fine-art video makers here. Only a handful of local outlets, ranging from museums to underground rock clubs, exhibit fine-art videos and Jenkins' political thrust and Third World perspective often encountered stiff opposition there.

"I was told by the previous curator at the Long Beach Art Museum that my work was too heavy and beat the audience over the head," he recalled. "My answer was, 'Look, I'm not trying to say something that would hurt someone's feelings.'

"When I make a videotape, I would like the viewers that are not of my ethnic background to feel they're having a conversation with a black man. I'm not going to try to be Ronald Reagan because that would be the biggest lie in the world."

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