Lyrics of My People

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Six hundred and thirty four.

That’s how many prints you’ll find on the walls of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.’s exhibition Lyrics of My People, currently on display at Ohio University’s (coincidentally named) Kennedy Museum of Art in Athens, Ohio. Of course, this isn’t a show about numbers. To call it incredibly immersive would be an understatement, as the artist – or printer, as he prefers – completely surrounds the viewer with letterpress prints rich in powerful words and vibrant layers of ink. Viewing this show is an experience, and it’s one not to miss.

The following photographs were taken during and following the exhibition’s opening reception in late September, and it remains open to the public until January 4, 2015. The quotes throughout this writeup were pulled directly from Kennedy’s gallery talk preceding the reception.

A quick note before I continue: Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. will be back at the Kennedy Museum of Art on the evening of December 4, 2014 from 5:30-7:30pm selling and signing posters for $20 directly off the museum walls. It’ll be a great opportunity to pickup a poster or few and meet Kennedy himself. He’s as kind as they come – though he’ll never admit it.

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Lyrics of My People is split into two parts. The larger room is covered floor to ceiling in primary-colored posters, each quoting one of a dozen African proverbs. “This is something I’ve always had in my head. I’ve kind of done it in the past, but just to have a huge space and cover it with posters, I think is the coolest thing in the world.” While the 546 posters that make up this installation share the words of the twelve proverbs, no two prints are actually the same. Each poster has gone through the press at least six times, leaving room for an abundance of variation to develop throughout the layers of ink.

Inspired by a pair of George Washington Carver quotes, ‘Be too brave to lie’ and ‘Be too generous to cheat,’ the proverbs that make up the posters in this installation are all on the topic of learning and education. “I just thought the way that [Carver] posed that was just so magnificent.” Kennedy has continued collecting quotes that present ideas in a positive way, promoting wisdom and knowledge.

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The second room of the exhibition appears sparse in comparison, but is full of perhaps even more dynamic work calling attention to social and civil rights issues. One wall is covered in 72 posters with a selection of quotes from Rosa Parks; posters with layers and layers of text built up taking on an almost painterly aesthetic topped off with strikingly powerful words. Kennedy uses letterpress printing, a process that is inherently hard edged by design, to create thought-provoking compositions that are packed with beautiful nuances. The message is clear, yet the way it’s presented keeps you staring.

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Referring to the collection of work in the second room, Kennedy explained jokingly, “I consider this more like art ‘cause I can’t sell it.” He continued, “I love to do things that have a social edge and I also love to show homage to the Civil Rights Movement, which is greatly misunderstood and greatly under appreciated for what it did for this nation. …Ever since I’ve been printing I’ve been doing something in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement. …It is a subject that is kind of lost in popular culture really. It’s like, well, it just happened 50 years ago, within the lifetime of, what, 60% of the people living in America right now? But we feel as if it happened before Columbus discovered America. ‘That happened a long time ago.’ No, it just happened.”

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“Last year I did 134 hand fans for 134 people that were murdered between 1946 and 1968 because of their involvement in civil rights and their willingness to die for the rights that most Americans now take for granted. And included in those were the six people that you see on the maps of Alabama. I like to print on maps because it is kind of subversive. Also the maps are given out at welcome centers, and states like to praise all the good things – ‘These are the good things about our state’  – Ya know, they never say, ‘Well, in our state we murdered 25 people because they wanted to vote.’ So I do maps because it gives a part of the truth that they want to hide.”

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Kennedy’s exhibition was prompted by his time spent in Athens earlier this year. He was brought in as a visiting artist to Ohio University’s printmaking department in April, during which time he collaborated with university students and four local community organizations to design and print posters for their cause. Kennedy and co. ended up designing and printing around 1500 four-run posters in only four days.

The creation of Lyrics of My People was yet another collaboration. The posters for the exhibition arrived without any hanging or arrangement instructions, as Kennedy wished for those installing the show to be involved in creating “the vision” of the piece. His only requirement was that they be installed “so that people can read the text.” The resulting patterns that make up the installation were dictated by a group of 15 Ohio University undergraduate and graduate students. At Kennedy’s request, a placard listing the names of these students as collaborators was included in the show.

11Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. in the Ohio University printshops, April 2014.

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One of Kennedy’s stipulations in creating this exhibition was that printmaker and DJ Todd Irwin, a third year Ohio University grad, spin records at the reception. Irwin worked with Kennedy to assemble a seamless playlist, and also built a custom setup just for the occasion. It was a big hit. (*Note: The P on Irwin’s hat stands for “printmaking” – not “Pittsburgh” or “Pirates”)

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Visit Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.’s Lyrics of My People through January 4, 2015 at Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum of Art. Also check out more of Kennedy’s work online at Kennedy Prints! and find him printing by the thousand in Detroit, MI and beyond.

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Categories: Artists, Current Events, Exhibitions, Reviews


One Response to “Lyrics of My People”

  1. Man! Kennedy always going strong, with a smile, keeping it warm and real, while upping the anti! Big time props for a great exhibit!