“The End of My Beginning” marks Houston-born Jamal Cyrus’s first mid-career survey at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. With 50 plus works made in the last 15 years, the retrospective stages a complex conversation around the Black liberation movement in the 1970s.
With an emphasis on Cyrus’s quilting, assemblage, and collage, the Blaffer explores the artist’s ongoing engagement with material culture. And through these fragments of the past, the exhibition tells a layered story about a multinational and multigenerational history of self-defense, self-preservation, and self-determination.
The FBI’s counterintelligence operation COINTELPRO forms the backdrop of several of Cyrus’s works. Established in 1956 to surveil, infiltrate, and disrupt the Communist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party, COINTELPRO expanded to monitor Civil Rights leaders as early as 1957 and by 1963 federal agents were bugging Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home and hotel rooms.
Until COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971, the FBI actively sowed division between activists within the Civil Rights movement, Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and the NAACP. (Other groups targeted include the American Indian Movement (AIM), Puerto Rican independence activists the Young Lords, feminist organizations, and the Ku Klux Klan). One of the program’s official objectives was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize activities of Black nationalists.”
Cyrus perhaps most literally realizes the ongoing practice of state surveillance and intimidation tactics in works based on imagery from redacted FBI documents. In his “Cultr_Ops” series (2008-20), Cyrus reproduced FBI surveillance files in graphite, wax crayon, and collaged strips of blue and bleached denim.
Along with presenting Cyrus’s works inspired by Malcolm X’s FBI file, the Blaffer retrospective features the laser-cut papyrus work “Duet” (2016) which depicts fragmented memos from COINTELPRO’s investigation into the possible communist sympathies that opera singer Marian Anderson and bass baritone Paul Robeson may have shared.
Likewise “Captured Letter from Paris” (2019), a blue and bleached denim collage, teaches us that activist and author Richard Wright’s affiliations with the Communist Party drew the FBI’s attention in 1943, prompting his self-imposed exile in Canada and France three years later. And with “Like the Jungles in the Dead of Night” (2020), Cyrus reminds us that Billie Holiday’s protest song “Strange Fruit” sparked several cease and desist directives from the FBI — the title also quotes an FBI agent’s hateful analogy between jazz and the jungle.
Cyrus engages with this history of oppression through both the excavation of classified documents and through the tapestry of historical fiction. In the Blaffer lobby, three installations of record sleeves and books present as a library exhibit of Black literature and music from the mid-century. It wasn’t until I started googling the albums that I realized that the covers were from Cyrus’s imaginary label, “Pride Records.” First conceived of in 2005, Cyrus based this collage series on different record store displays — “Pride Frieze — Jerry White’s Record Shop, Central Avenue, Los Angeles” (2017) is a faux storefront of a fictional South L.A. retailer with a central frieze of 20 record jackets running across two storefront windows.
Through the collages in “Pride Record findings—Tokyo” (2005-16), Cyrus tells the origin story of the imagined record label, a music company founded in Detroit in 1967 that “started with the intent to educate, politicize, and also entertain urban youth” but came “under the surveillance of the Federal Government…[making] it difficult for [Pride] to distribute its music.” As a result, in Cyrus’s story, Pride is pressured to partner with a bigger label that sacrifices political consciousness for commercial gain, and that’s, Cyrus says, “how they get neutralized.”
Titles such as “The ABC’s of Revolution” and “The Runaways” are paired with “Towards a Walk in the Sun” which features images of young revolutionaries marching out of a psychedelic sunrise. Among the early Pride recordings are “African Visionary Music,” spoken-word albums and “Three Tears for Fred” dedicated to the Black Panthers. By the last three records on the bottom shelf, a glossier corporate model marks the trend away from Pride’s late 1960s political messaging and towards the language of commercial disco music.
One of the great things about Cyrus’s LP jackets is that they illuminate a chapter in history without hierarchy. The “Pride” series does not single out a handful of artists or albums as canon. Instead it draws on the fabric of music history and illuminates a broader truth that the fictional Pride Records was like the hundreds of independent labels in Detroit that worked with thousands of Black artists who, in turn, spoke to millions of people for generations.
In transposing such analogous stories to the fictional label, Cyrus shares a glimpse at the role music has played in promoting civil rights and Black culture, the “breakdown of the politics of the Black Panther Party,” and the United States government’s persecution and oppression of self-determination.
If you make it to the Blaffer, I challenge you to tear yourself away from the powerhouses in the first gallery. Dominating the room are a group of sculptures, paintings, installations of musical instruments, and two works on paper that have stayed with me.
“Lights from the Garden” (2019) is a powerful memorial to Malcolm X (1926-1965). Seven bentwood chairs are stacked on a slab of oak flooring in the shape of a minbar, the staircase on which the imam stands when leading prayer. Fourteen stainless-steel trajectory rods pierce the legs, backs, and seats of the chairs charting the imagined path of bullets which killed Malcolm X on the stage of New York’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965.
I was practically hypnotized by the tension between sound and silence here. The staged crime scene has a striking stillness to it that’s contrasted with the musical instruments and microphones found throughout the gallery. Across from the angular blast of steel rods in “Lights from the Garden” is an untitled assemblage of silent microphones thrust towards a leather-wrapped drum.
Two works on paper — one in graphite and one in toner ink — of podium microphones echo the poetry and diagonal symmetry of both sculptures. “Blue Podium” (2008) and “The Black Messiah, Live at the Troubadour” (2008) both depict an empty stage between speeches. Cyrus drew imagery for “Blue Podium” from a video recording of a 1968 rally to free Huey P. Newton and “The Black Messiah” renders the last podium that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at in Memphis before his assassination.
In a conversation around who and what has been silenced and erased, Cyrus incorporates material culture into his practice to tell a history that has a notable lack of documentation. Indeed, Cyrus has spoken about his work as a form of self-education:
“due to the illegality of teaching the enslaved to read and write, and the subsequent lack of access to education following Emancipation and well into the middle of the 20th Century, the action of teaching oneself has a long history within Black culture. This concept, is of course, multidisciplinary, appendaging itself through practical, political, and spiritual import.”
As the lengthy and thoughtful exhibition labels testify, Cyrus’s research-based practice imbues his work with a profound sense of depth. And his handling of material culture unfurls the politics embedded within music, literature, and textiles into the work.
From within the Blaffer’s retrospective emerges a multitude of narratives around Black resistance and its historiography. The war that the United States government has waged against Black liberation for centuries resonates among the many story lines “The End of My Beginning” brings together. And by recontextualizing that history through the lens of protection — from the padded leather jackets to the plasticor barricade — Cyrus turns the lie white America tells itself about “militancy” on its head.
“Jamal Cyrus: The End of My Beginning” continues through Sept. 19 at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, blafferartmuseum.org, and will travel to the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2022, theicala.org/en