On May 20th 2015, I attended a lecture at the Hammer Museum called A History of Refusal: Black Artists and Conceptualism. One of the guest speakers was Hamza Walker. Hamza was saying that, compared to more established Black artists, newer Black artists less frequently feel the need to make art that speaks about issues affecting the African American community. He then followed by saying: “Elvis has left the building, but the building’s still there.” I happened to write down the quote, and have utilized it for the production of Elvis. My intention in doing this piece is to address White on Black racism in America, but also to address the mental patterns that are at the root of this and all other forms of prejudice. The most interesting interpretation that I’ve heard regarding this quote is that it can be seen as referencing how, although, for the first time in history, a white man was no longer living in the White House, issues of racism did not improve.
Speaking to America’s history of racial invisibility and marginalization, the artwork, Elvis, is about prejudice and racism, and the presence of inequality. It is composed of two neon sign boxes. When you look at the two boxes, they are separated not only by distance and walls, but also by aesthetics. The fonts and the words are different. It seems like they don’t belong together. However, it is only when you read the text in both boxes (together, as if the boxes were not divided) that the sentence becomes clear. This requires an open mind and willingness of individuals to look outside of the box. Just because people look different or seem different doesn’t make them any less valuable. When you look closer, both are boxes, both are painted on, both are made with neon lights, both are powered by the same “transformer” technology, both are vulnerable to damage, and both are an equally important part of the artwork. Despite their differences, these boxes, like people, are more similar to each other than they are different. Acknowledging both similarities and differences is intentional in this piece. I believe that by tricking the viewer, this artwork proves to us that our tendency to divide is alive and kicking; we must keep an eye on ourselves. Whether it be division over race, political beliefs, gender, sexuality, sports, or any other issue, I believe that we must try to remind ourselves that unity is far more important than our tendency to divide.