Celebrating Ben Jones’ spiritual vision at Montclair Art Museum
A Celebration of Ben Jones
Includes showing of the film “Resistance.”
Thursday, Oct. 25, 7-9 p.m., Free
Master Class with Ben Jones
Saturday, Nov. 17. 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Registration required, fee.
Montclair Art Museum, Leir Hall,
3 South Mountain Ave.
By GWEN OREL
When you first see Ben Jones’ large installation, “Envision Empower Embrace” at the Montclair Art Museum’s Laurie Arts Stairway, you see blue, a feeling of water, with words, and lots of discrete images floating.
Gradually you realize you recognize some faces: there’s Nina Simone. Donald Trump, upside down. Trayvon Martin. Maybe you recognize the Shango symbol, Yin and Yang, the symbol for Exxon and BP. You read the words “Thank you.”
And you might notice the picture of a black chair.
For Jones, the chair represents that work should be pondered, contemplated. “I like my work to be like good classical work. You always see something different in it,” he said by phone from his home in Jersey City.
He had returned from London just two days earlier, arranging a show there for the following year.
MAM is celebrating his work on Oct. 25 with “All About Ben,” showing the film “Resistance,” about the artist’s work in Cuba, a country he has visited more than 80 times. On Nov. 17, Jones will hold a day-long master class. Jones, born in 1941, is originally from Paterson.
“All About Ben” is presented by Mam’s African American Cultural Committee (AACC), an organization Jones helped to found 30 years ago.
‘I AM A SOCIALIST’
Not all of the members of AACC are African American; its mission is not only to “sustain and maintain the legacy of artists of the African Diaspora,” but also to be a “bridge between the Museum and various communities,” according to its description on the museum’s website, montclairartmuseum.org.
And, said AACC Chair William Jiggetts, the committee also interests collectors of African American art, who are not necessarily African American. Jiggetts and AACC Public Relations Chair Casey Carpenter spoke in a joint interview earlier in the week.
“We march in the African American parade and say, ‘Hey we're here, this is your museum too,’” Carpenter said.
“Ben’s artistic life and his civic and social activism over the decades has made him an important leader, teacher and mentor to so many,” MAM Director Lora Urbanelli said in an email.
Despite his fame and the schedule that comes with international shows, Jones is very much an active member of AACC: he was at a monthly committee meeting this month, Jiggetts said.
“I’m a Socialist,” Jones said. “I believe as a socialist I must be active in my community, and be of service. It’s a responsibility as far as I’m concerned.”
As a child, Jones thought he might become a foreign language interpreter, but as one of 15 children hadn’t thought he could apply to college. An art teacher encouraged him to apply. After taking night classes for a year, he needed to declare a major before applying before applying to Paterson College.
“The only thing I could think of was art,” he said with a laugh.
He became interested in African culture when he worked as a dancer with the Chuck Davis company in New York. Davis taught the dancers about the Yoruba religion, often called Santeria here, and its rituals, he said.
In Cuba, practicing Yoruba is as common as practicing Christianity or Islam, he said. He has been visiting Cuba since 1977.
“By our standards, Cuba is a poor country. By cultural standards and education, Cuba is an ideal country. Education is free. The culture that people have access to is of a very high quality. People don’t pay hardly anything to experience culture. The common people have a much higher level of culture than in our country.”
‘I’M A SPIRITUAL PERSON’
One of the things that Jiggetts appreciates about Jones’ work is that it is positive. “The message is always uplifting, but still acknowledges what’s happening currently, politically, economically,” he said.
In addition to the commissioned installation “Envision Empower Embrace,” Jones’ work “Juxtapositions #11,” 1989, is part of the exhibition “Constructing Identity in America (1766-2017), through Jan. 5. It is a polyptych (four-part) mixed-media on canvas. The four panels include geometry as well as pure expressionism, and a self portrait.
For Carpenter, the socially conscious messages come with a sense of power. The blending of different media and ideas excites her. “It’s not the same old, same old. I love his treatment of different events.”
“Envision Empower Embrace” is a MAM commission, made of selected imagery from his recent paintings. The central image of a fish, according to MAM label copy, is from a 2010 painting, with Denise Tansley’s poem “Mother Earth” in the surrounding space. Excerpts from Jones’ 2012 painting “Thank You BP (Wall Paper), which explores the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the gulf of Mexico, and the poem “Are You Fit?” by Basanta Lohani, are on one side of the fish. Excerpts from Jones’ 2017 painting “Destruction” (2017), which includes an image of a bird covered in oil, surrounded by a yellow frame, are on the other. The work was created with Montclair photographer Peter Jacobs.
It would be easy to read the repeated “Thank You” in the mural as sardonic. It is that. But it also is not, Jones said.
He recalled a memorial for the actress Ruby Dee, and how her daughter said you should always say thank you to people. “In the black church, a lot of songs are saying thank you to God for good things happening,” he said. “In black churches with Southern roots, you can hear people saying, ‘Thank you Jesus, Thank you Lord.’”
He does also have a painting titled “Thank you BP.”
The mural is “dealing with opposites. On the one hand, we don’t want pollution in the environment.
“On the other hand, we’re getting it. One side is the negatives we have, the other side is peace and clarity, the planet the way we wish it would be.”
Faith is a foundation of his work: “I’m a spiritual person,” he said. He wants his art to go to a spiritual level that goes beyond religion. He uses African symbols, such as Shango, a god of power in Yoruba mythology, and he uses colors that represent the Orishas, different deities in Yoruba.
“Now, a lot of my work focuses on ecology. I’m trying to deal with the fact of the destruction to the planet. Racism, climate change: I’m trying to connect those kinds of things, with a spiritual base,” he said.
Carpenter had suggested the yellow frame around the bird stuck in oil was exactly the color of National Geographic.
Jones said that in fact, he painted the frame yellow “to make you look at it,” the placement of the bird was making it blend in. But he likes that different people will see different things in the many different elements of “Envision Empower Embrace”: that’s the way it is supposed to work.