“Are you a brand or are you an artist?”
This question, sometimes posed to artist Steven M. Cummings, cuts to the heart of the latest installment of the “Call and Response: Community and Creativity” series at the Anacostia Community Museum. Two exhibits, one by Cummings and one by multimedia production company Creative JunkFood, break down the hallowed barrier between commercial and fine art.
“Artuaré” by Cummings opens with four repetitions of the same portrait, each a different color. The photograph will look familiar to DC locals, as Cummings plastered it on metro stops and streetlamps across town in 2010 in an effort to build an image for himself. “I realized nobody really knew anything about me,” Cummings said. “It was a marketing thing, for me.” It worked: people started posting the soon-ubiquitous portrait online, creating the buzz that Cummings was hoping for. “If you want to be able to survive as an artist, you have to create some sort of image,” Cummings explains. “They’re buying into you, what you produce. So once you build that image, then you can produce almost anything.”
The exhibit showcases Cummings’ earlier efforts to build a following for his friend and fellow DC artist, B.K. Adams. Many of the photographs feature Adams in what they call the “artist’s bow”: a doubled over running stance, one hand forward, one behind, repeated in so many different settings that it inevitably sticks in your memory. A former marketing major at Louisiana State University, Cummings has an instinct for getting people’s attention. For one stunt in 2009, the pair installed Adams’ son’s highchair on a tall pole in an empty lot on H Street NE. “Why don’t we put this chair somewhere people can see it?” Cummings remembers telling Adams. Soon enough, people started asking questions about the mysterious chair in the air. It caught the attention of a local blog and before long Adams was getting calls from other reporters.
The chair added mystique to Adams’ image, which Cummings had branded, simply, “I am art.”
Now that he’s generated attention for Adams, Cummings is starting to focus on his own brand. “I spent a lot of energy and time helping him out and making him matter, making him important,” Cummings says. “But in turn, I was also helping myself to come out of my own box and really start to explore a lot of things.” And so, out of Adams’ “I am art,” Cummings’ “Art you are” —or “Artuaré“—was born.
In keeping with the museum’s theme “Call & Response,” Creative JunkFood, LLC‘s tagline, “We make it art,” is an appropriate “response” to Cummings’ “Art you are.”
The local production company Creative JunkFood creates music videos, PSAs or commercial ads. The three principals, Candice Taylor, Nabeeh Bilal, and Thomas Mobley, all have backgrounds in the fine arts, but apply their training to less traditional work. “I have had people ask me if I’m an actual artist or just an animation thingamajig that comes along every few months with a new video,” Bilal says.
The exhibition, “Conversations in the Contemporary,” defies concrete definitions. Creative JunkFood took the lead in a loose collaboration that brought together different media and artists. “Each person in the exhibit had a role to fill,” Bilal says. “We were each interpreting the questions who am I, where do I come from, how did I get here and why does it matter.”
The “organic process,” Bilal says, began with a soundtrack created by local musician AB the Pro. Next, spoken word poet Princess Bethea responded to the music to create the script. The narrative she created inspired the animation, drawn by Bilal and Taylor, which were packaged into a video by Mobley. The end result of these many different interpretations is a collective social consciousness. Bilal stresses that, as southeast DC locals, this social consciousness is very important to Creative JunkFood. “As a youth coming up around here, if you’re not , then you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you’re going,” he says. Although Creative JunkFood is a commercial company, “we don’t do what we do for a financial benefit,” he says. “We’re really critical of the projects we take. We don’t want to do generic videos with people, or generic animations that have no meaning or substance to them.”
“Artuare” and “Conversations in the Contemporary” are on display at the Anacostia Community Museum through April 29.