"This is not a moment, but a movement," Ahmad Jackson told me on this week’s episode of Art on the Air.
The self-described conceptual artist has frequently used his artwork to respond to societal issues, and the recent social justice movement corresponding to yet another murder of a black man by police is fertile ground for inspiration.
Growing up in the 1980s and 90s as an African American, this kind of thing has been all too common during Jackson’s lifetime. He was in tenth grade when the video of the Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of those involved inspired the "1992 Los Angeles Uprising," which never seemed to ignite the kind of systemic change many thought that it would at the time. And while he himself never faced that level of police abuse as a kid in Savannah, he did experience harassment.
During our hour-long conversation, Jackson spoke of when he and his brother, who were thirteen and eleven respectively, were sitting on the porch when all of a sudden the police converged on the pair due to a complaint of "loud music." Before they knew it, they were cuffed and in the back seat of a police cruiser, although they’d done nothing wrong. Thankfully a neighbor was there to get their parents involved before they were taken to the station.
Or the time when his father, a carpenter and to whom Jackson credits his natural skill at working with his hands, forced he and his brother to stay inside one summer day simply because the police were out looking for a couple of black teens who had committed a crime. Neither he nor his brother had done anything wrong, of course, but Jackson’s dad knew that his kids would be targets simply because of the color of their skin.
"It shouldn’t be that," said Jackson. "But I take those experiences and put it in my artwork. I’m more of a ‘I can show you better than I can tell you’ person. So I just take my…personal experience, and I try to translate those experiences using the objects around me and…the knowledge of building to covey the message of the time."
There’s a subtlety in Jackson’s style that often belies the deep meaning behind the artwork that he creates. His mixed media two-dimensional pieces, which frequently feature photographs, sometimes black and white and sometimes color, regularly include phrases or use their titles to give the viewer clues to their almost secret true natures.
Take, for example, the photographs he showed in Location Gallery’s recent four-year anniversary exhibition, "Lush" (and now in their "Moveable Feasts" online showcase to benefit hospital workers, viewable at LocationGallery.net). They feature primarily green compositions of the iconic type of plastic army men that many in his and my generation grew up playing with. Each image utilizes titles that refer to specific bible passages, such as "Genesis 9:8" and "Exodus 21:33." Researching those chapters informs the viewer that the pieces are commentaries on things like love, slavery, and war.
"I have a message I like to get across," Jackson humbly stated, "or get out there, for the public."
In times like these, socially conscious artwork is more important than ever. Jackson is well aware of the power of an image.
"As an artist I know visuals can get a point across faster than a paragraph or a two page paper about racism," he said. "God has given me the talent to construct an image, or to construct a sculpture that reflects the times. 100 years from now they may see a piece of mine, a piece that I did, and say, ‘oh, back in 2020 this was going on.’"
"I think all artists are obligated to use their talents in the arts to help this movement," concluded Jackson.
Listen to my entire conversation with Ahmad Jackson embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with artist Amiri Farris about his work and "Support Lowcountry Artists Y’all" (SLAY).
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.