While contemporary art in its purest definition belongs to the present, it often proves difficult to disentangle the present moment from history.
Artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle understands this — and she embraces it fully. She’s made it the crux of her work, giving the past and present equal footing and importance in her artistic production.
Hinkle’s work has been displayed (and performed) everywhere from Project Row Houses in Texas to the Studio Museum in Harlem. Hinkle, who says she's "nomadic by nature," splits her time between L.A. and Oakland. She describes the former as “so performative, sprawling and alive," while the latter is “steeped in revolutions that are inspired from the people, by the people and for the people, i.e., the Black Panther Party.”
In 2012, she was the youngest artist in the group chosen for the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. Biennial. She worked with researchers on the creation of “Kentifrica,” an imagined space that merges Africa and Kentucky, the latter being where Hinkle grew up. She held a concert with two ethnomusicologists called Kentrifica Is at the museum.
She recently returned to that space for “In Real Life: Studio,” a project that focused on the artistic process. Artists used the space to work on their pieces, congregating to discuss concepts or rehearse performances. At the end of the project, Hinkle presented a performance in which she invited the public to participate. Also focusing on erasure, the performance was a way to workshop material for “The Evanesced,” her current show at the California African American Museum.
Hinkle’s practice focuses on the merging of history and present, something the artist refers to as “The Historical Present.” Through this mantra, Hinkle explores how we “are all chained to the past” and “must reconcile what was done before” in order to move forward.
Because history operates “as a constant shape shifter,” Hinkle finds she can best explore the concept through multiple mediums.
“I see my work oscillating between mediums and time as a way to make these elusive and seemingly invisible tensions and slippery historical contexts hypervisible to become catalysts for change and self-awareness of the roles that we all partake in,” Hinkle writes in an email.
In working with “The Historical Present,” Hinkle also considers the way we are shaping cultural history for future generations and the power in not letting events and people go forgotten. Her work asks that we keep the past in mind while processing and consciously remembering the present, for the sake of posterity.
“The Evanesced” — made up of drawings, performance and archival photographs — traces a lineage of violence against black bodies throughout history by focusing on the deaths of black women. Inspired by the #SayHerName movement, a hashtag created to prevent dead women from becoming statistics rather than human beings, Hinkle created these drawings to honor women and find strength amidst so much tragedy.
“I am the same age that Sandra Bland would have been right now and have the same aspirations to go back to my alma mater to teach, and she never made it to her first day of work,” Hinkle writes. “Knowing her story and thinking about the current 64,000 black women in America who are missing and the black transwomen that are being murdered in horrifying numbers to date is beyond unsettling, and one can quickly feel defeated, but to take up this charge of refusing to let their names be erased from our tongues and timelines is so evocative and needed.”
In the “linework and movement” of her pieces, Hinkle wants to fight against the subjects being seen “only as victims” of their murderers. These women “deserve elevation,” they deserve for us to hold onto the complexity of their identities. The India ink and watercolor pieces on recycled paper show the thinnest outline of nude female figures, pops of color occasionally showing up on the women’s faces or head scarves.
Instead of creating conventional portraits that memorialize their full likenesses, Hinkle created figures that seem to be in the middle of disappearing. While the works memorialize these women, they don’t let the viewer get too comfortable in the way that a straightforward portrait might. It’s up to the viewer to grasp the last, few strings of memory — to make sure the women didn’t disappear for naught.
Hinkle wanted the figures to “oscillate back and forth between being seen and unseen, the flesh and the ghost, the stable and the unstable, the accounted for and the unaccounted for.”
As the artist continues to weave the threads before present and past, her work asks that we think about the bodies that have been erased, the stories that need preserving.