Self-portrait in studio, 2020

IN TALKS: Shaka Dendy

2020-2021 Run of the Mills Resident and Summer 2019 Public Art Resident Shaka Dendy discusses Camp Blood, teen empowerment, and social art practice with Senior Director of Communications Lauren Pellerano Gomez.

Lauren: When did Camp Blood get started?
Shaka: We started doing shows on December 30, 2018. When we started, Haasan would do a solo set and then bring me out for two Camp Blood songs. But then we developed enough material for a full-on Camp Blood set, I think we did 15 shows last year. 

Camp Blood performing at ICA Boston; Photo by OJ Slaughter

Lauren: What was it like performing at the ICA?
Shaka: It was really fun! It was the biggest stage we’ve had. We did get a complaint, which is probably my favorite part of it. One of the Seaport residents called the ICA to have the cops come to shut the show down. Their words were, “the music was aggressive and racially-charged” and they wanted an end put to it. Which was incredible. There were chants for Camp Blood to come back.

Lauren: That is pretty much the best review you can get.
Shaka: Yeah, because they’re not wrong. You’re totally right, absolutely right, but no, we’re not stopping. So it kept going.

I struggle with telling people what the music is, but I say it’s in the spirit of NWA and Nine Inch Nails combined – that was our first NWA moment of people wanting the police to get involved. So that was very rewarding.

Lauren: “Gestures of Incompleteness” was very well received. How did that partnership come about with Bodega and with the Art Book Fair?
Shaka: So I had this [basketball] drive idea for a while, and then I saw the opportunity for the BCA residency program to do a public sculpture and I thought that would be cool to use that budget to do this basketball drive and do a sculpture to make it work. Basically that was what I presented and they were into it, so we did it and it was really well received. 

Monuments to Gestures of Incompleteness, 2019

I wanted to work with Bodega because I know they’re a community hub and a place that people know. I wanted to go to places that people are already at and meet them there: my Boys & Girls Club, Black Market, BCA, and Bodega.

Bodega and BCA co-founded the Boston Art Book Fair, so there was a connection there. And just having the BCA made everything easier than just Shaka Dendy — some guy — showing up wanting to get basketballs and I give you a new one. So that made everything way easier and they were super open to whatever I needed and the time and space to do it. Circle back around for BABF, and doing the panel and having local voices to speak. That was really the BCA and Bodega connection there. Even before then, Bodega was one of the places I was looking at.

Lauren: Is the basketball drive project over? Or is there a new iteration or concept? How are you seeing the kind of social practice part of it moving forward?
Shaka: The project is the Gestures of Incompleteness, and then the sculptures were the Monuments to Gestures of Incompleteness. So I look at it as: the real work is the actual interactions, and then the sculptures are sort of the receipts of the fact that this all happened. 

Lauren: If that’s the real practice then, how does that practice manifest itself in your everyday life?
Shaka: In my upbringing and values and interest in community and not just wanting it to be all about me. Which is kind of like a through-line in the work. Both of my parents are very community-minded and I was always raised with that consciousness. I don’t think it’s always as literal and direct as it was with this one where I’m directly one-to-one with the work doing that work. But it’s always there, even if it’s just ideological.

Monuments to Gestures of Incompleteness, 2019

Lauren: So the upbringing and values that you’re referring to, what’s the deal with that?
Shaka: My mom was always organizing something in the community, or, we were donating all of our stuff. She put on these annual Kwanzaa celebrations for a while in the nineties and early aughts. My dad was more informal with it but super-conscious. It’s very natural for me to want to do that and work outside of myself. So when I have the opportunity, especially if it’s a public artwork, how can I make this as public as possible, bring it to as many people as possible, and make sure that the people are making up the work instead of it being an imposition on the public.

Lauren: How do you negotiate being both a practicing artist and an arts administrator?
Shaka: Am I an arts administrator?

Lauren: You work for the MFA? 
Shaka: Yes, but I don’t see myself as an arts administrator. I work in the film department. I don’t feel like my professional role has any bearing really on my arts practice or the practice of other artists.

Lauren: The reason I ask is because I see a lot of this in Boston where people choose: “either going to work at an arts institution, or I’m going to try and show work at an arts institution.” And I think one can do both, but its positioned this way because Boston is a socially-conservative, tiny town. It’s almost this idea that you have one professional identity and that’s where you live. 

Shaka: Before I worked here I worked at the ICA, and I still work at the ICA, I teach a class there once a week about writing in visual arts. It’s one of their teen programs. For me, it made more sense. Like, to sustain my art practice right now, I need a job, obviously to get money, but I also need a job that’s going to give me something I can’t buy. Something beyond the money. There was a ton of information that I found valuable. Even now it’s great, I work in the basement but it’s nice to be able to take 15 minutes and walk through a gallery in the middle of my day. Even on the way to meet you, I was like, “oh there’s some new stuff here that I’ve been thinking about.” So I’m excited to see it. I just like being around art, I like being in museums, so for me, being able to get paid to be in a place doing a job that is in a comfortable environment that I enjoy is a double-win for me. And then you meet people as well. Boston is a very tiny town, with the Boston arts scene being a smaller bubble inside of that.

I don’t think if you want to show work in the MFA, that getting a job here is going to give you a leg up. That isn’t the way to do it necessarily, but for me, at least, I find benefits in working in those kinds of spaces. I don’t have to go to work and completely turn off my art brain to do my job. I can stay in it. 

Ten Piece, 2020 at”Hagiography or New Saints,” Distillery Gallery, March 2020

Lauren: Is working with young people important to you?
Shaka: It’s been super rewarding. I always thought I’d teach way down the line – in the same way that Spike Lee is a professor. I’d do my whole career thing, then teach college. But yes, it’s sort of surprising and rewarding experience being able to work with younger minds. I’m realizing that my age now [27], as being a decade removed, I’m not old, but there is enough of a distance to really appreciate it.

Lauren: In your view, what is the potential for public art? What can public art do?
Shaka: One thing I saw working in the galleries in the ICA was who has access to these spaces, who comes in here to see art, and in what way? Is it a field trip where you’re being forced to come, do you have an understanding of what’s going on? I think there’s a lot of valuable ideas and important things happening in art institutions that for a number of reasons the ‘powers that be’ prevent certain people from accessing. So as someone who I feel is straddling both of these things, that isn’t lost on me and I don’t take it lightly to kind of be sort of a membrane between these two spaces.

But yes, to bring these ideas to people and meet them where they’re at in a way that’s more immediate and relatable and kind of take down the four white wall thing going on. I think that’s really powerful and something I’m really interested in.

Lauren: Can you tell us about the “Punishable by Law” show at MassArt?
Shaka: It’s with myself and another artist who is a SIM (Studio for Interrelated Media) student at Mass Art. Their name is Noriyoshi Needle and they also do a lot of work with milk crates which was kind of the point of the gallery reaching out to us to do a show together. So “Punishable by Law” for me is sort of like what I was saying about this idea of the criminality of marginality so every crate kind of has that promise of “you can be punished” stamped on to it, and all the people using them in different ways of sort of inherently made criminal. 

[Note: In the U.S., under Pennsylvania Law Act No. 37 1987, you can be arrested or legally fined for the use of a milk crate. Any “unauthorized use of milk cases is illegal” with the penalty of “a fine of $300 or imprisonment up to 90 days”.]

Left: Unnecessary Force, 2020; Right: Black Jesus and His 12 Disciples, 2019 — “Punishable By Law,” Godine Gallery, February 2020

Lauren: Does that tie back to your project at BCA? 
I had all these crates obviously, so I had a lot of other ideas that didn’t fit into what was there and so this was a place to put those ideas using the crates in other ways. The thing I’ve been working through with the milk crates is this idea that I’m preoccupied with right now: with black subject-object ambivalence.

This relationship between being a black object and subject and what that looks like. Using ready-made materials/objects as subjects to kind of talk about this weird relationship that I think Black people have with object-ness. African people get kidnapped and forced onto a boat, come to America, and they’re transformed from African people to Black objects. And then so generationally that gets more and more ingrained and then it gets to a point where we are now sort of struggling to unlearn those things. But that tension and space in between object and subject is really interesting.

I’m exploring with cultural artifacts recontextualized and repurposed. That’s what I’m doing with the crates and sneakers, etc.

Lauren: What is industrial hip hop?
Shaka: Yes, so industrial hip hop… well, Camp Blood is and is not a hip hop band. Hip-hop is maybe more a shorthand for contemporary Black musical expression, it’s a culture and a perspective. But we are rapping. Industrial refers, loosely, to music made with industrial machinery instead of instruments.

Lauren: Isn’t it like a punk thing?
Shaka: Yeah, and those spirits kind of capture generations in different social, political, economic circumstances. The music comes out very differently, but it’s the same spirit. The industrial part is kind of…it’s more of a textural thing. We look at where Camp Blood exists within the continuum of music, in these cycles that happen over and over. 

So you had a point in the 80s where, outside of Michael and Prince and the great Black music of the time, pretty much everyone was just making Talking Heads records for, like, five years. We’re back at that place now, where I think people since 2012 have just been making Migos songs.

That’s ground zero, year 1 A.D. moment of forward. No more of that.

And so the industrial part is a really deliberate decision and deliberately minimal, just because sort of what’s happening now is so much over-the-top ostentatiousness it’s sort of like a textural stance against — we call it the Versace-covered corpse of hip-hop. It’s like we’re just going to completely obliterate that and this is our proposal of what we think is next.

Follow Shaka Dendy @shakadendy and visit Shaka’s website.