American Cypher is a suite of projects that considers the role of DNA in our current understanding of race and American identity. Stories about historical individuals including scientists, members of the criminal justice system, and politicians form poetic reflections on where the reality of scientific data complicates the irrational fears and powerful emotions wrought by the human psyche. The project began at Bucknell University where Mendi + Keith were invited to research the stories of president Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, who was his slave, his wife’s half sister, and the mother of some of his children. Through this investigation, Mendi + Keith recalled “we began to see how much the DNA evidence that undeniably links the Hemings and Jefferson family lines affected the historical record… for us, this opened the door to other conversations about the role of DNA in our understanding of roots, race, and American identity.”
The eight-channel sound installation at the core of the exhibition derives from recording a 200-year-old bell belonging to Sally Hemings. The audio becomes a meditation on the resonance that genetic material holds over time and through biological lineages. Passages in the accompanying video projection depict DNA’s double helix form discovered by scientist James Watson, who became infamous in 2007 for his racist remarks about perceptions of African genetic inferiority. Later his genetic identity revealed African descent in his family lineage. Letterpress prints describe other stories through image and text and cover the use of DNA as evidence in the criminal justice system and the ways identity may be embellished to attain cultural notoriety or manipulated by others with political motivations. According to Mendi + Keith, “the spark for all of this is the Hemings and Jefferson story. We see the Hemings/Jefferson story as an American origin story. It gets to the heart of two questions—who gets to be American and how do we identify them?”
On April 2 at 7pm, Mendi + Keith will speak about their work in the Artists Now! lecture series at the Arts Center Lecture Hall on the UWM Campus. The exhibition opens on April 3, 2014 from 6-8 pm and includes Body Lock, a short performance by Mendi + Keith, at 7 pm. Mendi + Keith Obadike’s visit to UWM is co-sponsored by PSOA’s Art + Design Department, Music Department and UWM’s Center for 21st Century Studies.