Boulevard of African Monarchs, 2020. Aluminum plate and shoe polish, 10 x 10 x 15 ft. Site-specific installation at 116th Street and Adam Clayton Boulevard, Manhattan, NY. Photo: Liz Ligon

A Conversation with Kenseth Armstead

Kenseth Armstead’s videos, drawings, and sculptures draw upon and re-envision the legacy of Africans and their diaspora in the United States. In his decade-long “Spook” project, Armstead explored the life and legacy of James Armistead Lafayette, a double-agent spy for George Washington during the American Revolution. Most recently he has focused on public art, completing commissions for Olana State Historic Site (Heresy • Hearsay, 2014), Socrates Sculpture Park (Master Work: Astoria Houses, 2015), and Union Square Park (Washington 20/20/20, 2018). His newest work, Boulevard of African Monarchs, presented by the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance and NYC DOT Art, translates the abstract geometric motifs of traditional mural painting by women artists in Tiebele, Burkina Faso, into a monumental, freestanding aluminum sculpture. The work is on view through August 2021 at the intersection of 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem.

Boulevard of African Monarchs, 2020. Aluminum plate and shoe polish, 10 x 10 x 15 ft. Site-specific installation at 116th Street and Adam Clayton Boulevard, Manhattan, NY. Photo: Liz Ligon

Sculpture magazine: What are you currently working on in the studio?
Kenseth Armstead: I’ve been hand-stitching the night sky with electric fence wire. The Big Dipper points to the Little Dipper. And the Little Dipper is very important because it contains the North Star. I’ve been working on conceptualizing a monument for the Underground Railroad and all the Africans who escaped via the Underground Railroad, some 100,000. And this has been very long and slow, but in a way it’s sort of perfect because it underlines the difficulty, in the case of enslaved Africans, of trying to achieve knowledge and then apply it, in a system that obviously wants to keep you uneducated. I’m sort of placing myself in a physical space where if no one was looking, I could draw these systems in the dirt. I could learn it. And once you learn it, it can’t be unlearned. That’s what abolitionism is all about: educating, emancipating, but also that nature is freedom—actually positioning yourself within a natural system sustainably is freedom. Even if you’re enslaved.

This came out of another body of work called “Future Dictionary.” Ever since I was five or six years old, I’ve drawn with these wire hangers. But I’m constantly playing with space. I do not consider myself a sculptor—I draw. But I love to see the drawing in three dimensions, which makes me a sculptor, but by default.

I haven’t made anything representational in a long time. All the work that I’m doing now is based on a project I did called “Spook.” “Spook” was 10 years of me looking at James Armistead Lafayette, who was a spy in the American Revolution for the Marquis de Lafayette, who of course was handled by George Washington. But neither Washington nor Lafayette actually would have survived the war without James. Americans didn’t pay him to spy, but the British did—the freedom that the British were offering James was a freedom that his masters were willing to fight a war not to have. So James is this ultimate patriot, because after the war, he was not freed. Four years later, using the Marquis de Lafayette’s name, because he was literate—which was his biggest advantage as a slave, that he was literate and people didn’t know it—he was able to petition the Virginia legislature, and after some deliberation they freed him by paying his owner five times the price of a slave, so that no one could try it again. He took the name Lafayette as a means to continue to secure his freedom—just by saying his name, people would associate him with this founder. And I never say “Founding Father,” because nobody ever uses the term “Founding Mothers.”

The reason that I talk about “Spook” at all in relationship to what I do now is that it was like a physical battery from 2005 to 2015. And then I needed to do something with all that energy—that I had told this narrative wasn’t the same as me making alive the feeling in an object of what that perspective is like. And then somebody asked me if I wanted to make a public artwork in 2013. And as soon as I made one, I didn’t want to do anything else. And it was this place that I was putting all of this energy about the legacy of Africans and making it physical and real in public space.

I believe that I’m adjacent to the art world. I’m not a figure in the art world. I am critical of the fact that the art world is overly white, overly small, tokenistic, and so every time I made a public work, all of a sudden I am actually just talking to Black people about their history, about their community, about our shared physical lack of presence. On any street, you’re on Roman streets, with French Colonial architecture, with jacked-up Modernist German concepts, but the whole idea of being in a society is an African notion. As Africans you don’t have any representations of that anywhere, physically, in your built American world. So, in a way, the American Revolution and our erasure from the beginning of the struggle became this battery for me to make an African physicalness in New York City. And if you look at all my pieces, there’s always this sort of making more there there, but that “there” is African, ethnic, historical, socratic.

Sculpture: That’s a great segue into your current piece in Harlem, Boulevard of African Monarchs. Could you talk a bit about how that commission came about, and how you approached it?
KA: Boulevard of African Monarchs was funded by the Department of Transportation. They found these spots in the city where they wanted people to make art for a community. Now that’s my thing.

When I looked at this corner, I instantly fell in love with the fact that they had made a pedestrian refuge, and this space was a moment where everybody in the community walked past: to the subway, to the African market. And what I did was make this retro-futuristic African car. There’s a scene at the end of Black Panther, where they decide they’re going to start building stuff in Los Angeles, and these kids on the basketball court see him de-cloak his ride, a sort of hovercraft. My concept was to do that at the corner of 116th and Adam Clayton Boulevard in Manhattan—just make something so that one morning, people would wake up, and there would be this unknowable African thing that had appeared.

In fact, there are pictures of me just hanging out with homies on the corner. They were like, “This is yours?” And I realized that there’s this whole line of parked cars there, and my goal was to harmonize my African architectural embellishment with the cars. When Connie Lee, who is the community partner with the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, went to look at the sculpture after it was installed, people rolled up on her, and they were like, “Do you know Kenseth?” And it’s like I parked my car there, and she got too close. And that was really interesting to me, because it was personal, and it’s a sort of extension of my Black body. And it’s assailable, but it’s unassailable in some ways. 

I had been on that corner working for six months with a sketchbook. And when people would ask me, “What are you doing here?” I was like, “Well, to be quite honest, I’m not sure because I haven’t decided what the thing will be. But I want you to know that a sculpture is coming. The city wants there to be art here, but I want this art to be related to us—to our history, to our place, and to make something African that will center this neighborhood on an African foundation.” And first of all, they thought it was crazy. And I’m like, “But I am crazy.” Then they were like, “Do you know that I draw?” And I’m like, “You do?” And then we just go back and forth. So for six months, there’s all this pre-work. A lot of artists make their studio work, and it might be good, but they put it on the corner and nobody on the corner knows that. 

Washington 20/20/20, 2018. Perforated steel, angle iron, wood, enamel paint, tar, and feathers, 12 x 12 x 8 ft. Photo: Liz Ligon

Sculpture: By the time the work was installed, people felt connected to it in a way that they wouldn’t if it were just plopped down there, and they didn’t know where it came from.
KA: What’s funny is that they may not even understand or like it. A lot of the time I just go to the site so people can tell me they don’t like it. But this is giving power to people. It’s so powerful to allow them to say that they don’t like it. And then I laugh, and we just have a conversation about the legacy. The imagery in the work represents over 700 years of mural painting done by women in Tiebele in Burkina Faso. And I’m taking that painting and making it into a physical sculpture. My work excludes no one. And I just think the art world needs to be bigger, and so that’s my whole thing: I make the art world bigger. 100,000 people live on that corner. They all experience an Africanness that is matter of fact, day to day now. And they couldn’t do that before.

600,000 people saw the work I did in Union Square previous to this. The day after it was installed, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held a rally in front of it, and there were 40,000 people. Every other day there was a protest in Union Square at the feet of George Washington, but my protest was there before, just waiting to be part of their protest.

The piece before Union Square, in Socrates Sculpture Park, was designed so that feathers would fall out of it. I started using feathers in my sculptures as a way to bring a pathos of the living. The piece is 20 feet tall, but it’s a replica of public housing. There are these feathered windows designed so that some of the feathers from high up will leak down. But people decided that they didn’t like that. They went and picked the feathers up, went to the lower windows, and put them back in. For a year, I couldn’t find a feather on the ground. People asked me why I would make work about public housing. And I’m like, “Why wouldn’t I?” And they were like, “Why would you make work about our houses?” And I’m like, “What happens when you make a portrait?” So that’s what my work is all about. I’m very matter of fact—I never use art words. Socrates Sculpture Park has a program where they have interns that are from the public housing. There’s never been a work directed at their housing as an object. For a full year, my work was there, and it was like: Your home is beautiful, have you noticed?

Sculpture: How much of the fabrication of Boulevard was planned, and then how much are you improvising as you’re putting it together?
KA: I consider myself to be like a hip-hop artist; I’m constantly sampling. But then I’m sampling the work of these African women who have been doing this for 700 years. When I’m translating it I have to draw and re-draw it on the aluminum. And after I make the cuts, I then enhance or emphasize a lot of the “wrong” marks. I make the point that there’s actual space and that there’s implied space; some places you can see I might knock it out but I didn’t. And that makes the viewer realize that I didn’t just make a template and have a machine stamp it. It’s hand-cut. It’s like a cow chewing cud—I’m actually doing all this labor on every little piece of it. That makes it more personal. And then the whole thing was covered with shoe polish, so it’s waxed like a car. Once again, one of the base materials is actually quite ephemeral. But it’s something that people understand—people understand waxing their car or their shoes. In all cases, I cut out everything with a circular saw, which is very hard to control.

Master Work: Astoria Houses, Building 24 (detail), 2016. Stainless steel, angle iron, tar, and feathers, 20 x 40 x 40 ft. Photo: Nate Dorr

Sculpture: You were doing work that was largely figurative, and then once you started doing the public work, it became not only abstract but abstract in an architectural way. How did you figure out that’s the language you wanted to use?
KA: In the ’90s, I founded Rhizome with Mark Tribe. I did Rhizome for a year. Afterwards, I continued to work in dot-coms for a bit. Eventually, I bought houses. And then I had bought my freedom. I was a free Negro. As an adult, I acquired a relationship with all of these architects. I bought a historically landmarked brownstone in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, and I would come up with these ideas about how to change it, to continue its historical legacy inside as an artist. I realized that wherever I go, I make more there there.

Now I focus all of the resources that I bring in to make this new sort of African reality. Recently I received an email that said, “We have a major project for you in this city and we just want you to do it.” I texted a friend of mine, and I was like, “This is our dream!” We get to decide what the legacy of our ancestors is and how it is seen on the streets, and we didn’t have to go and ask. They came to us. Our hands are on the steering wheel.