Walk into one of New York-based artist Azikiwe Mohammed’s (previously covered here) installations and you’ll feel a surge of collective emotion. Part performance, part installation, Mohammed’s work relies on the pooled efforts of many, many people. Utilizing both found and created objects, Mohammed engulfs the room in cultural artifacts that are at their core, part of the shared Black experience. Generously inviting viewers to take part in his practice, Mohammed seeks to create a safe space, one that is free of the all-too-real experience for most Black and Brown Americans.

Working at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, Mohammed’s studio serves as a sort of reliquary for all his past projects. Shelved high and low with figurines, toys, combs, tools and neon, his studio is packed with objects that he’s received or ones that he’s made. To him, they both serve to better his message. In 2017 he opened Jimmy’s Thrift of New Davonhaime - an immersive experience at The Knockdown Center in Queens. New Davonhaime is a fictional place that is an amalgamation of the names of the five most densely populated Black cities in America: New Orleans, Detroit, Jackson, Birmingham, and Savannah. During his time there, Mohammed acted as the thrift store’s owner, Jimmy. According to the Knockdown Center - he accepted “donations from the public in the form of photographs to be added to , or audio-recorded memories that detail the first time participants realized they were Black. These recordings, called My First Time stories, will be compiled and turned into 12” records that are then added to the installation’s growing collection. Both living archives offer an intimate and nuanced portrait of Black lives both contemporary and past.”

New Davonhaime carried on to the Ace Hotel in Chicago this past summer and fall, presented by Mana Contemporary. Mohammed continues to source new materials and objects to tell the story of the Black experience in America and we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Check out our interview and studio visit with him below.

Jessica Ross: Considering a lot of your art and installations require participation from the viewer, do you think it creates a more active experience and engaged discussion regarding your work? What challenges have you faced with this sort of interactivity and how have you worked it out in the past?
Azikiwe Mohammed: I hope that the participatory nature of much of my work lends itself to a more engaging experience, but that's for the viewer to say, not me. I could be failing miserably and no one has told me yet. One of the difficult parts of work in this vein is a lot of what I am making needs a human pretense to help walk visitors thru the experience. That can be me or it can be other people, but additional human labor can make what is already a labor-intensive practice even more so. 

Your studio is covered head to toe in different objects and ephemera that you incorporate into your practice, where do you find all these things and why do you think objects carry such important cultural and historical weight? 
I find the different objects from shopping a lot, people mailing me stuff and making stuff via partnerships with manufacturers. Objects carry with them the histories of the people they have lived with, the things they have seen, and more importantly, they create a shared language between the people that are familiar with them. A Black Power afro pick speaks to other choices a person has made in their life, that if you own one are choices you are probably familiar with. A painted box with the name Victor on the front may remind you of the painted box you have that reads Vivian. You got that box from your Grandmother. Maybe you should call your Grandmother. 

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If you had unlimited time and resources, what sort of dream project would you put together?
If I had unlimited time and resources I would take a vacation. After the vacation, I would make a string of restaurants with a rotating selection of chefs and a built-in teaching program re: diet and cheap food sourcing options, and yes, that includes cans. All the locations would be in neighborhoods of need. All the food would be free.

Can you tell us a little bit about your project New Davonhaime? How did the collaborative postcard initiative shape the experience and ultimately the final result?

I needed a place to feel ok as I didn’t feel ok here. New Davonhaime maybe can be that place. The New Davonhaime postcards are a way for me to ask people what them feeling ok looks like. I then try to turn those answers into representative objects that live in different parts of New Davonhaime. Telling people what they need is wack. Asking people, then trying to be present for their answer is less wack.

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What do you have coming up later this year and in 2019? Where can we follow your work online?
For this year I curated a show at Gloria’s Project Space in Ridgewood that I’m super stoked for, and next year there's a few things but let's finish this year up first. Online is www.azikiwephoto.com and here. Holler.

Photos and interview by Jessica Ross