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His sleeveless undershirt showing off his impressive biceps, Vin Diesel gives viewers a steely glare. Dog tags hang from his neck; above him blazes the phrase “We Want You.” You might think the U.S. Army had started a new recruitment campaign. But the biracial actor’s image has been conscripted for another cause—artist Djakarta’s multimedia work Niggaz4Life, currently on view at Transformer.
Borrowing the title of a 1991 rap song by N.W.A., Niggaz4Life is an imaginary advertising campaign urging celebrities of mixed racial heritage to embrace their membership in the black community. Consisting of photographs, video, and an extragallery poster effort, the piece is included in “E2: Carving a Path,” an exhibition of works by those enrolled in the gallery’s professional-mentorship program, Exercises for Emerging Artists.
A D.C. native whose parents ran the now-defunct Galleria Triangle from their home in Columbia Heights, Djakarta, 30, studied commercial photography at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, before transferring to the Corcoran College of Art and Design. She graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography and recently exhibited in a group show at Conner Contemporary Art.
For Niggaz4Life’s photograph series, Bi-Racial Recruitment Campaign, Djakarta printed magazine-gleaned photographs of Diesel, Mariah Carey, and Tiger Woods—who has publicly declared himself “cablinasian”—in postcard format. To these images, she added borders of green and red and highlighted “We Want You” in black and red—Black Nationalist colors. “Green symbolizes the earth and red the blood of the people,” explains the artist. “Black represents the people [themselves].”
Across from the postcard display is Djakarta’s video Niggaz4Life—Recruitment Video I, posed as if to confront the celebrities with the very stereotypes they may wish to avoid: scenes from such recent movies as Booty Call, Soul Plane, and Bringing Down the House.
“The media has been able to say that this is OK because it’s coming ‘from us,’” comments Djakarta. “‘It’s all right—black people like being this way. It’s keeping it real.’” In contrast, she believes such performances are “keeping us in a place where we’ve always been and can’t get out of. These celebrities,” she says, gesturing to the postcards, “are saying, ‘I have a way out,’” by rejecting these stereotypes and, some would argue, their blackness.
Key to the video are clips from Spike Lee’s controversial Bamboozled, which features modern-day black actors performing 19th-century minstrel shows; Djakarta has interspersed them with movie footage of bare-butt shakers, preening pimps, and eye-rolling, finger-wagging girlfriends. “Spike Lee…had the resources and backing to put out a film about it; I was echoing the sentiments of the film and expanded it by including misogynistic imagery,” she says.
In the third component of Niggaz4Life, Djakarta took the campaign to the streets—literally. “Lots of times you go to galleries and you really don’t see many black people….What I wanted to do was engage the community.” To do so, she made posters of the biracial celebrities stamped with the campaign name and distributed them in Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and the H Street Corridor.
“I want [people] to see these things around and think…‘Gosh, I keep seeing these posters. What does this mean, “Niggaz4Life”? What’s going on here—Vin Diesel? No, this can’t be a movie.’…I just want people to think!” —Hetty Lipscomb
Djakarta’s work is on view to Saturday, Aug. 6, at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW. For more information, call (202) 483-1102.