At the cacophonous intersection of Sun Ra's wheeling jazz cosmology, P-Funk's psycho-disco logorrhea, Clarence 13X's alpha-beta-culto Five-Percent Nation, the early '90s vainglorious hip-hop of X-Clan, Isis, and Blackwatch, and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (1950-64), that sprawling, tinfoil-bedazzled outsider masterpiece by Washington, DC, handyman James Hampton, lies a crazy-ass aesthetic of African American visual and performance culture the culture of flash. 36-year-old Kamau Amu Patton taps directly into this interstellar shine-on-shine look and feel, jettisoning or maybe out-transcending the quasi-theological messages in order to dazzle the mind's eye blackwards.
Consider Patton's Talk Show (2007). Two archetypal afrocentric public-access cable hosts, both played by Patton, decked out in on-point dashikis and shells before a pixel projection of Hampton's Throne, dissemble circuitous phrases. "Knowledge is the foundation of all that is existence ... You must respect the thing you observe as being real!" one declaims, while the other sighs loudly and eggs him on: "Ah, damn that's the truth." A little silver prayer bell is rung and a 1-800 number flashes across the screen. Telephone message: "Behold, the light has come! Speak on!"
Talk Show's blank parody should dead-end in hilarity for anyone familiar with these types of folks. But the dreamlike accumulation of gaudy signifiers, as well as the sense that this is a completely unexplored cultural trope, rockets the video into more thoughtful realms. "I wanted to point up the tautologies of that kind of discourse, to capture the exact aesthetic while highlighting the circular rhythms of delivery, the language of persuasion," Patton says. "But at the same time I felt a responsibility to perfectly perform these characters, the kind of people I grew up with in Brooklyn, who were on my street corner preaching like that. I really freaked out over getting the sunglasses exactly right."
That will to performance perfection, evidenced in several of his other live works, is grounded in Patton's educational background. He holds a sociology degree from the University of Pennsylvania and completed field coursework at the London School of Economics. "I grew disillusioned with sociology because it seemed the opposite of what I felt I was interested in," says Patton, who educates Bay Area kids on the artistic legacies of their particular communities. "I wanted to start with something tangible, or several things, and use them as a jumping-off point to continuous abstract revelations. It's a generative aesthetic kind of thing. To keep going down a certain illuminated hallway in my work. At the same time, I'm a black man in America, so I have a certain perception or set of experiences that I can draw on as well. I'm definitely drawn to the shamanistic and the kingly especially African American representations of the kingly. I can go off on what Eric B. and Rakim were wearing on their first album cover for hours."
Other Patton confluences of the statistical and the flashy: his performances as part of the hip-hop and fashion collective Official Tourist; this year's gorgeous self-published book Edge Theory of Dematerialized Consciousness, a wiggy, chthonic numerical-poetic tract punctuated by eerie nature photographs; and an unnamed retro-digital-video assemblage, viewable at www.kamau.org, in which Patton, as a voodooistic priest, writhes around a hissing explosion, whose glitchy "digital dropouts" and color-balance freakouts are meant to be Cézanne-like portals into other dimensions. Currently, the Emeryville-based Patton is artist-in-residence at Southern Exposure.