Through an adventurous combination of kung fu heroism, Civil Rights struggle, pop culture humor, and political self-empowerment, Dawolu Jabari Anderson’s current exhibit at Saltworks Gallery creates a fictional story that’ll make you think twice about real-world history.
Ten Panthers of Kwangtung begins with Anderson's “Frederick Douglas Self-Defense Manual,” a series of drawings of six fictitious fighting techniques secretly developed by slaves on Southern plantations. The crinkled, artificially aged pages each bear a ridiculous title, such as "2nd Technique: Fetch'n Calamus Root and Chinkapins" and "6th Technique: Duck'n Behind dis Here Oak so'as Patter-rollers Don't Sees Me." The turns of phrase poke fun at stereotypes of black speech, and situate Anderson's Asian fantasy within a familiar black history. The figure in "3rd Technique: Negro Picks Cotton" strikes a praying mantis pose; his fingers gather to a deadly point, turning a lowly plantation chore into a proud weapon of liberation.
But what does kung fu have to do with being black? Although Anderson's mythology calls to mind the genre-splicing antics of Quentin Tarantino and Wu-Tang rapper RZA, one of the artist's chief inspirations was his 2006 meeting with indie filmmaker Charlie Ahearn. Ahearn's 1979 urban karate flick, The Deadly Art of Survival, plays on repeating loop near the back of the gallery. The film was a kind of community collaboration, created on a threadbare budget at the request of teenagers living in some of New York's poorest boroughs. To them, action heroes like Bruce Lee were a sensational alternative to the Caucasian norm. Kung fu was sexy — and it symbolized a power anyone could achieve with hard work.
Unfortunately, the exhibition is over all too quickly. The self-defense drawings are reserved – an austerity that appropriately nods to traditional Chinese painting, but also subtracts from the excitement. Even the nearly 6-foot-tall painting "Seoul on Ice" lacks the feverishly high-octane imagination of some earlier works from the Gullah Sci-Fi Mysteries series, which featured a superhero Uncle Remus and a character Anderson called "Mam E." Although Anderson's vision comprises only a handful of original 2-D works, Ten Panthers remains a promising example of intelligent contemporary pop.