Bethlehem Daniel, one of the founders of the Deep Underground Collective (DUG), walked us around the exhibition DUG co-curated at Portland Art Museum, “MONUMENTS. The Earth Expedition of Sun Ra.” The building, like all museums, is so heavily dependent on gate keeping. At what point, Daniel wondered, does that power structure start to infect the works themselves?
“Is this about the art, the artist or is it about the art collectors?” Daniel asked.
The exhibition is part of an unparalleled one-year program aimed at questioning what kind of art ends up in museums. “We. Construct. Marvels. Between. Monuments.” is a series of of contemporary art projects at the museum’s Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, programmed by guest curator Libby Werbel.
And, as evidenced by the massive golden sculpture that greets visitors this month, the exhibition also lifts up one of the most forward-thinking, under-recognized art collectives of the 20th century.
Sun Ra, a leading creative force in Afrofuturism, was a multifaceted genius who laid groundwork that would influence progressive musicians and artists for decades. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, he carved out a place for himself as a master who drew on several styles and genres. An innovator in the industry, he formed America’s first black record label.
Ra’s Arkestra, founded in 1952, became a full-blown, multi-dimensional expression of visual art, incorporating dance, elaborate costumes, and celebratory chants reaffirming that space is indeed the place.
Ra spoke of an interstellar visitation in 1934 that codified his philosophy. There was, he said, no positive future for black and brown people on this Earth. What else was there to do but return to the cosmos where, he said, people of color originated?
Werbel, known in art circles for curating the much-beloved Portland Museum of Modern Art project in the basement of Mississippi Records, is the artistic director the museum invited to direct “We. Construct. Marvels. Between. Monuments.” This final stage began when Werbel got in touch with DUG about co-curating.
“We had a lot of conversations,” Werbel said, “about Confederate monuments being removed and the ways in which they have, for so long, been symbols of oppression. Then we started thinking about who we would want to build a new monument to.”
Sun Ra, she said, was the obvious choice.
Working with Werbel, and PAM curators Sara Krajewski and Grace Kook-Anderson, DUG members Bethlehem Daniel, Mia O’Connor-Smith, Janessa Narciso and Madenna Ibrahim sought out art and artifacts from the Arkestra’s incredible, six-decade history: costumes, instruments, artwork, broadsheets, plus many rare albums the Arkestra recorded. One entire wall in the exhibit is nothing but records. These aren’t mass produced or re-issues; they’re originals, with detailed, handmade covers.
DUG and Werbel leveraged some additional firepower by working with Mississippi Records owner Eric Isaacson on something he’d been trying to arrange for years: live performances by the Arkestra. For the first time since 1988, the ensemble played Portland at the Museum and Hollywood Theatre.
Sun Ra worked outside of the mainstream for most of his life. But nearly 60 years later, his influence in almost all progressive music and movements, such as Afrofuturism, is finally catching up with the man from Saturn. It’s impossible to take in films like “Black Panther” or listen to the music of Kamasi Washington or the Sons of Kemet without hearing the echo of Sun Ra’s words: “The possible has tried and failed. Now, it’s time to try the impossible.”
As the celebration of Sun Ra enters its final weeks, it feels as though DUG’s monument has the power to infuse the halls it occupies with a new potential for a better world.
“MONUMENTS. The Earth Expedition of Sun Ra” is on view through Jan. 27.