Artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman is in his studio in Philadelphia. He answers my call in a cool collected voice—almost soothing. Huffman is busy finishing up one of his video and vinyl works for You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, his upcoming solo exhibition at Anat Ebgi, a gallery straddling the border of West Adams and Culver City. At his essence, Huffman is a collector of digital and tangible objects, giving birth to different representation of collage in video, photography, and installation. “Obsessive collecting impulse,” is how he describes the condition, where wall vinyls, lightboxes, and films are subjected to a cacophony of stories intertwined and always clashing. For Huffman, when images are stacked upon one another, they become recontextualized, and when text is put in front of an image, new meaning is found. In Huffman’s work, it’s not only the layering which matters, but also how these images re-represent notions of the Black male body experience. Whether in popular film, or current social media consciousness, Huffman deploys these collected images that constantly change. He creates experiences of Black love for women in his life, whether in his family or media at large. In 2019, at Frieze LA’s debut edition, Huffman imbued a sense of honor and brotherhood—almost holy trinity-like—in his piece, “Confessional Poetry,” a text and music-based performance centered around hip hop, masculinity, and Black Ego. Such are the notions present when seeing his works, particularly his newer ones.
The past two years have been major stepping stones in Huffman’s career, with two major shows at The Kitchen in New York and at Ballroom Marfa in Texas—both incredible institutions known for their extensive programming of POC performance artists and thinkers; earlier this year, artist Lex Brown performed her one-woman show, Focacciatown, at The Kitchen during her exhibition, Animal Static (in a lot of ways, Brown and Huffman deal with similar approaches to subject matter in production and experiential installation); at Ballroom Marfa in 2017, Rafa Esparza’s Tierra. Sangre. Oro. explored adobe brick-building as a process-centered site for personal, cultural, ecological, and political investigation. Esparza’s bricks became building-blocks to create walls displaying works by other Latinx artists.
Like the above artists, Huffman transforms spaces into his own. In “Tempo,” Huffman’s piece at The Kitchen, a dark room is filled with meticulously placed screens with lightboxes of neon abstractions and glowsticks in the midst of being cracked open to reveal said light. On one side, a five-channel screen is flashing bright red, while across the room, an image of a young black man is ruminating in a space filled with purple and pink hues. The piece examines our affinity for Black music and our expectations for its potential as a tool of resistance. At Ballroom Marfa, Huffman’s exhibition, The Way You Make Me Feel (2019), hosts a series of projections and outdoor installations. In “First Person Shooter,” he calls into question the labor of consciousness and the anxious ennui of the Internet age. One of his seminal works, 2017’s “Mother and Child,” is a digital collage of a mother looking down at her son, printed in earthly tones, with a layer reminiscent of washing a car with a dirty towel, yet adorned with brightly-colored dots that encompass the whole image. The piece is reflective of the bond with his mother and perhaps an inference into the absence of his father. “My mother worked in HR for a big part of her professional life,” reminisces Huffman. “But she always wanted to pursue fashion design. My father wasn’t a part of my life.”
“I am the only artist in my family,” Huffman says. Hailing from the west side of Detroit, at a young age, he moved to Clearwater, Florida, where he discovered poetry. “I started writing poems in a more serious way in middle school, and then got into video and photography through writing,” he shares. “Everything I do comes out of writing.” This talent allowed him to study at Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, an arts magnet school for the creative. His godfather, Henry, a reflexologist and poet, was a major influence on his life. So, too, was Levar Burton, most notable for his roles in the Reading Rainbow and Roots. “I’d probably still love reading as much as I do without Reading Rainbow, but probably not,” he jokes.
In addition, Florida can be interpreted as a major influence in the palette of Huffman’s image-making. In his Flaunt artist cover, Huffman snaps a haunting image at night; a backyard wooden fence oozing with foliage top and bottom, the camera’s flash creating shadow puppets. “Though I made that image pretty recently while in residence in northern Florida,” he says, “I actually went to high school in central Florida, and have this really weird connection to it as home, but also as this place I absolutely hated in high school,” Huffman confides. “That image kind of really distills that feeling for me.” A place filled with eternal beauty and magic, but also a place associated with deep trauma and political instability. Does it contain the duality of light and darkness? Is it a safe place for someone like you or me? Or is it an ethereal plane we could only see in our dreams? A vision of our current instability in the nation? What is beyond that fence?
Huffman’s early introduction to writing drove him to study at Bard College’s Writing Department, receiving a BFA in 2003. “I think there was this kind of strict division between writing and other interests, which I really didn’t know what to do with until I found an outlet in the weird space of film and video at Bard,” he states. “Though I switched fully to photography pretty soon after this, it still really instilled this other sense of what was possible thanks to seeing stuff like Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage.” Immediately after graduating, he pursued an MFA in Literary Art at Brown, a two-year stint in Austin, and then decided it was time for New York City. There, he developed a relationship with the poetry scene and spent time focusing on his visual practice, producing his first book, 19 Names for Our Band. Soon after, Huffman shifted from more hybrid performance/projection work and got into the Workspace residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), and things really started to change. In 2013, as his 30th approached, Huffman applied and was accepted into the Roski School of Art MFA program at USC.
Curious about the future, I ask of the differences in his processes from the past to today. “For most of my early twenties I was just writing poems, but then visited Marfa during this really rough period when I was living in Austin, and something just clicked when seeing a Roni Horn,” he says, referring to the visual artist and writer’s long-term loaned install at the Chinati Foundation. “I started making these projection pieces with slides because I didn’t have access to a studio,” Huffman states. “You could put an entire sequence, or several sequences in a small box and fill an entire room. From that point up until now, I’ve worked mostly by moving from project to project and figuring out the best form (video, lightbox, essay) in the research stage and working from there.” Huffman’s work is heavily stacked, perpetually pressing up against the viewer, allowing us access to his thoughts, and creating an immersive experience layered in his consciousness—a state of reflection. Throughout our call, I can tell that he is slowly but surely figuring out the next steps for the upcoming show at Anat Ebgi, which opens January 11th, mesmerized by the array of possibilities. Huffman later sends me one of his videos that I absorb obsessively.
This new piece, Patient B—a two-channel video—displays snippets of World Star Hip Hop with vehicles crashing, and are then intertwined with violent scenes from major motion pictures. What connects these seemingly disparate ideas is that the videos, along with bizarre audio, are all in reverse. “I wanted to focus on the idea of violence,” clarifies Huffman. “I’m working from clips of car crashes and different World Star/street violence movies. It’s all in reverse—unfolding, unhappening,” he says. Like “Tempo” at The Kitchen, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me will encapsulate the entirety of Anat Ebgi’s space, transporting us into his thoughts. Huffman has always approached art through a poetic lens; his images are formulated and constructed out of that language. “I’m going to tell my children that this was anxiety,” the text in Patient B reads. Juxtaposed with a tree catching on fire by way of powerlines, “No More Parties in LA” by Kanye West plays on—another example of an artist who uses collage, aurally, to get his idea across.
A consistent theme in Huffman’s works is the intense feelings of double-exposures, reminiscent of video artist Nam June Paik’s work, but subtle in tone like the paintings of Mark Rothko. There’s a psychedelic component to engaging with Huffman’s pieces; color transcends darkness in these spaces, with bright shades of red and portraiture almost suspended in mid-air. Black children are on top of signs, on top of trees, in shades of green, blue, aqua, and marron. Through this technique, a kind of code-switching is set into place, reactionary to the present-day struggle of the Black experience. Still, there is always playful admiration for women. Huffman’s sculpture, “May Day,” from Ballroom Marfa’s The Way You Make Me Feel, shows Grace Jones in great strength hoisting a businessman as if he were about to meet his end. Like a piece by Dadaist Hannah Höch, there is a collision and montage of ephemera, pop culture, and stillness, bleeding with the realities of the quotidian. Huffman’s everyday.
Through text, there is a purification of language—so much can be done with so little, and the same goes for collage. “Collage means this other kind of distillation similar to making poems,” remarks Huffman. “For me, the juxtaposition and reframing are the same or very similar to the paring down of language in poetry. Instead of the desert standing in for emptiness, you can have a sequence in a collage video of reframed footage as a stand-in for some other condition.” The way we see images and process information is abstracted in our minds—to experience a feeling within a constructed space and go the same as a narrative play-by-play. Huffman is not obscuring us from his truth, but bringing us closer and closer to interpretations of Black love, whether downcast and/or moody. With Huffman’s winning formula of pigment, sound, and vision, there is still so much apparent hope.