By Myla Seabrook
If you have a spare moment and you happen to be on Eldridge Street, I suggest you make a stop at the LMAK Gallery. Their current exhibition, Spook: INVOCATION by Kenseth Armstead, is at once a history lesson and a thrilling story of slave-turned-spy James Armistead.
Dissatisfied with the fact that the Armistead story seems lost to history’s more ‘relevant’ tales, the artist retells it using graphic novel format, a contemporary touch that increases accessibility greatly. With pencils on heavy, smooth paper, Kenseth crafts the tale of a superhero, as Armistead must have seemed in his time. James Armistead dashes across several panels, his figure blurred by cartoon motion lines. His carefully drawn close-ups are likenesses of Jamie Foxx, a contemporary celebrity figure. These aesthetic choices bring the character forward through time.
As explained to me by Bart Koning , one of the very knowledgeable curators of the gallery (the other is his lovely wife), Armistead was hired by George Washington, the very first head of the CIA, to spy on persons of interest. Armistead had escaped slavery prior to his hiring, and used his knowledge of racism to his advantage. Taking jobs as a butler, Armistead was largely ignored due to the color of his skin, and conversations of sensitive information were carried on in his presence. This was Armistead’s main method of gathering information, some of which was even used to stop what may have been one of the bloodiest battles in history.
Kenseth Armstead’s work is part of a three book series. What is displayed in LMAK is a bit of a summary of the artistic work; it tells only enough of the story to intrigue a viewer, and is hung with attention to artistic rather than literary cohesion. The first book has been published and is on sale, and the second is in the works.
Kenseth is a jack of all trades in the art field. He has worked as both a digital artist and a performance artist, constructing his own sets as a backdrop to his performance pieces. Once such set design is on display in the exhibition, a wooden construction that depicts piles of slave bodies. It stands as a backdrop to the show itself, as it reminds the viewer of the very real dangers that Armistead faced as well as the very literal shackles that were waiting for him if he failed. In a time where being an African American was grounds for slavery or death, Armistead’s heroics were that much more relevant (as he had that much more to lose).
The attention to detail that the artist showcases in his work tells me that this is a subject he cares a lot about, and it prompts me to care too. His show is the kind of thing that makes you stop and think about what else you may have missed in history class. It’s informative without being boring; interesting without telling too much, and visually appealing throughout.