Finding Fanon

“Open Season,” which debuts today at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, is artist Larry Achiampong’s first show outside of the UK. The exhibit features 16 blackboards; each one contains chalk-written text in the style of a student being disciplined for a transgression; line after line is repeated for the purpose of being burned into memory. Inspired by various images, words, and sound clips mined from social media, Achiampong compiles each source to reflect a wide range of opinions, such as sentences that read “The people on the podium are black women” and “Build the Wall.” These texts offer glimpses into the multiplicity of selves found online and IRL, and Achiampong—who was born in the UK but also holds Ghanaian citizenship—references such notions of identity throughout “Open Season.”

Achiampong addresses the duality of his own identity in Battalion (2014 – present), 92 hand-painted skateboard decks inspired by Ghanaian kente cloth, as well as Sunday’s Best (2016), a 15-minute video piece commissioned by the Logan Center specifically for “Open Season.” The work focuses on the impact Christian imperialism had on his tribe, the Ashanti, and features Achiampong’s mother evangelizing in Twi (a Ghanaian language) at a Catholic church in his hometown. The video addresses alterations of tradition associated with colonization, especially in the present day.

The exhibition, whose title references a protestor’s handmade sign Achiampong saw online during the national coverage of Ferguson, will open with an artist talk and screening of Achiampong and his collaborator David Blandy’s series Finding Fanon. The video works follow philosopher Frantz Fanon’s writing on race, decolonization, and violence in the early-to-mid-20th century by relating how each artist’s own familial history aligns with British colonialism. The screening and artist talk will take place tonight at 7 PM at the Stony Island Arts Bank.

I spoke with Achiampong about how nostalgia informs his exhibit, and explored how the artist’s identity is deeply tied to video game graphics, skateboarding, and the opening credits of The Simpsons.

Larry Achiampong, Battalion, 2014-presentCredit: Image courtesy of Sylvain Deleu

Kate Sierzputowski: Why did you choose Grand Theft Auto V as the context of the second video in the Finding Fanon series?

Larry Achiampong: My collaborator David Blandy and I were looking at various video games and considering which possibilities each had in terms of aesthetics, environment, and what its engine would allow us to do and not do. We considered Fallout, which is set in a postapocalyptic United States; Skyrim, which is set in a fantastical Nordic territory; and finally Grand Theft Auto V. On a social and political level, it made much more sense in relation to philosopher Frantz Fanon’s work, especially his writings on violence and decolonization, which worked well in comparison to the focus on violence found in GTA V. It made sense to use an arena of violence to talk about cultural violence, and the GTA V world was a space we could easily transform from a seemingly alive city into a depopulated dystopia, a postapocalyptic world, a clean state after the end of history.

How were you able to capture and choreograph video from within the game?

GTA V’s PC version not only allows you to utilize its hyper-resolution output, but also gives you the ability to use the in-game editor. Here you can export every aspect of activity that happens throughout your gaming session and edit the point of view where each shot was filmed. You can have a fly on the wall, close-up, drone shot, or any other shot you can imagine while placing the camera as close to or far away from your character as you wish. These facilities in real life would cost you millions of dollars, easily. David and I geeked out over the whole thing and saw that there were all of these possibilities for building films in this style. David is based in Brighton, a couple of hours from London, so we would meet up online and Skype while we played to choose the various places we would have our avatars meet up at and travel to. This is how most of the work came together. We would spend hours exploring these various vistas and environments together within this parallel version of Los Angeles.

You use video game graphics and references often within your practice. Is this a way to set your work in a contemporary context, or more of a nostalgic gesture to your childhood playing video games?

I think it’s both, to be honest with you. I grew up playing video games and I still play them. It’s been fascinating to see this evolution of 8-bit pixels evolve into a high-resolution industry that now surpasses Hollywood with the money that it makes. For me it became a natural premise to use some of the functions of video game technology, but at the same time I try not to adopt it just for the sake of its existence. You will find within “Open Season” that technology plays a large role, but there are other aspects of my practice at play as well.

Can you talk about your piece Battalion, which involves 92 hand-painted skateboards that you found on the streets of London?

I think the idea that joins Battalion with some of the other pieces in the exhibition is nostalgia. Skateboarding is something I used to do quite a bit as a kid. I was always fascinated by the underside of the deck and how people would create tags, paint, draw, and write on it to make it their own. These objects would become my friend’s shields—objects showcasing symbols to depict aspects of one’s own identity. I used this idea to consider my existence, being raised in the UK, whilst learning about my inherited culture, the various motifs and values within my Ashanti and Ghanaian heritage. Starting of with the sacred cloth called kente and considering the various patterns and meanings behind the use of color inspired a painting style that I employed on all of the skateboards.

How do your recent blackboard works combine texts from mined social media posts?

The blackboards are new works that reference work I brought back from a solo show I did in south London in 2007, before I finished my MA. I was inspired by The Simpsons actually, that small part in the introduction where Bart writes on the blackboard, and in every episode there is some sort of satire that is repeatedly written. It reminds me of memes that people create, which get shared, cut, copied, and pasted. These blackboards came out of the idea to create this motion of relentlessness, because that is what the Internet provides, and it can be quite fatiguing.

One text I am presenting is the repeated text, “The people on the podium are black women.” That was inspired by looking at various stories that were coming out from this year’s Olympics—the bullying behaviors that were happening as a result of an increase in black female athletes getting gold medals from the United States, Britain, or various nations throughout Africa.

Another blackboard piece is about an image I saw when I was finishing the Sunday’s Best video that I was commissioned to make for the show. The image is of a Trump supporter wearing a DIY shirt that said “Build the Wall.” I took this text and repeated it, and then at the end I wrote “We’ll walk around it.” When I think about that piece it makes me think about my own heritage, about my own parents’ journey as immigrants to the UK. Being an immigrant myself technically, I have both British as well as Ghanaian citizenship. I wanted to confront that photo rather than walk away from it.

Achiampong and Blandy appear tonight, 7 PM, Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island, 312-857-5561,, free.