While watching the artist who goes by the name chukwumaa tear page after page from a pile of books stacked up in Transformer’s storefront window, I couldn’t help but think of Jeff Wall’s take on Invisible Man. It’s easily the most famous image associated with Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel: For his homage, Wall depicted the lightbulbs that illuminated the narrator’s secret dwelling—there were 1,369 of them in Ellison’s book—as well as the narrator, whose face is turned away from the viewer.
For his Transformer performance, chukwumaa turned the incubator space into a symbolic fort—something like the basement hideaway occupied by Ellison’s narrator. But chukwumaa’s problem, or the issue facing the character he creates in “Thee Urban(e),” anyway, isn’t invisibility. It’s rather the opposite.
The artist’s performance and sculptural installation zero in on certain perceptions of young black men—specifically, the way that they present themselves to the world and how people perceive their intelligence as a result. One video on view recounts one of chukwumaa’s performances. Wearing a backward baseball cap—the ur-symbol of urban youth, a focal point for racist presumptions and classist misunderstandings—the character (played by chukwumaa) strips pages out of books, then tapes them together, building a sort of cocoon. The video shows a figure emerge from this structure (which is also on view); this time it’s chukwumaa in dapper dress, signaling something else.
The Lagos-born artist, a recent University of Maryland graduate, conceives of education as a physical something that a person drapes oneself in. Perhaps that’s because the scrutiny of black bodies and the speculation about black IQ is so overwhelming and so interrelated. For the performance in Transformer’s storefront window, chukwumaa stood atop a veritable library of books and used their pages to paper over the gallery’s front windows. A metaphysics survey, an organic chemistry textbook, a Nietzsche reader—the text mountain represents the kind of collection that someone might build up over the course of a University of Maryland education. (Indeed, most of the books belong to chukwumaa.)
There are a few more hints in the show that chukwumaa is concerned with legibility, visibility, and literacy: During his performance, a Tyler, the Creator sample of someone saying “I can’t read” (or really, “I cain’t read”) loops as part of the arthaus soundtrack put together by the artist. I couldn’t quite figure out why dapper chukwumaa (as opposed to dressed-down chukwumaa) was the one to occupy the storefront, building up this protective nest out of text. Maybe the meaning is that, for young black men, the whole spectrum of self-presentation is subject to incredible scrutiny.
I’m less certain, however, that “Thee Urban(e)” shows the viewer enough work to convey everything on chukwumaa’s mind. During the opening, the crowd that gathered to watch from outside Transformer as chukwumaa worked inside neatly mirrored one of the show’s themes—with the viewers reading chukwumaa even as he was composing himself, as it were. But with so many outliers—backward-hat chukwumaa from the video, the single sculptural installation, the stray audio sample—it seems like the viewer is only getting the first chapter.