Carl Pope: Leading a Revolution of Self-Honesty


By Sara Lee Burd


Carl Pope, Nashville Visionaries Installation, 2019. Photo courtesy of Courtney Adair Johnson.


Carl Pope and I sat together for four hours. Enjoying each other’s company, we chatted about his art, ate biscuits, and read his book together. I found the man kind, tender, and brilliant. The acclaimed artist is known for his meticulous installations, community-based collaborations, and poster projects. Although he has shown in museums such as the Whitney Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, he also values the immediate impact he can make through his grassroots community projects. His poster series The Bad Air Smelled of Roses has found an iteration in a literary collaboration with visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff. Entitled The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, the book unfolds with cultural analysis that provokes questions about confronting history, understanding the present, and imagining the future. As we turned the pages, the eye-catching, text-based images drew me in, and the poetic words begged me to think. Digging into his art requires extensive cultural literacy and readiness to face your own presumptions and adherence to conventions. I left our conversation with a reading list and renewed commitment to self-honesty.


Sara Lee Burd: What were some early experiences in your life that steered you to make socially engaged art?


Carl Pope: My high school photography teacher was a grassroots social activist, feminist, war protester. She taught me that art could be a tool for social change. Those ideas that I got in high school from her about how it was photography that changed public opinion about the Vietnam War affected me. She said it was not the protest. It was the daily inundation of horrific images of the war that changed public opinion. Her critique on that was before any academic reading of images, identity politics, or other ideas you get into at the graduate level of education. She gave me that at a black high school in the 1970s. That captured my imagination. Also, seeing the death of Martin Luther King on television as a child, it was one of those things that I’ve been trying to make sense of in my life and my work ever since.


The community-based project, Nashville Visionaries, is your third collaboration with Tennessee State University (TSU). Why do you value your opportunities to work in Nashville?


I really saw this as one of the ways TSU could participate in civic revitalization through the Nashville’s art scene. If we are going to truly rejuvenate our communities, we have to include the arts. We have to engage the creative community in a way that is supportive and authentic. The way to do that is to continue to show how vibrant that community is. That’s what I wanted to do with inviting TSU students and the people of Nashville to participate in Nashville Visionaries. I extended an invitation to all “visionaries” and had an overwhelming response.


Calling the exhibition Nashville Visionaries gives the voices included authority. Why did you want people to self-identify as visionaries?


That was part of the whole thing. It was to make art with whatever vision they wanted to share with anybody who saw their work. Not just showing the creative vitality of the community, this project gave them the permission to really explore the imagination. We are coming to a time in our society when creative ingenuity and innovation needs to be encouraged as an answer to the growing problems facing us in the future. Look at the global economy. It’s not more money that’s going to save us. It’s going to be how well we imagine solutions to the growing limitations ahead. I really feel like when there is a continuing investment in the creative vitality in Nashville, art will begin to contribute more and more to the city.


The Bad Air Smelled of Roses from the book The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, 2017. Photo courtesy of Carl Pope.


What do you think the role of empathy is for our future?


We think that we understand things, but if we experience it in our lives, the dimensions of it deepen and widen. The kind of thinking that is so prevalent in this society is thinking without feeling. People think about the deaths in Syria and Iraq, militarized police action, killing of black people, but few of us feel what it is we are thinking about. I can intellectually articulate the difference between seeing and thinking and thinking with feeling. The reason why things remain the same is because nobody wants to feel what it is happening when they think about it. You are forced to make a decision about it if you are actually feeling. When you see people who are really feeling the death or disrespect, they lose their minds with pain, and they become sensitized to all of it. That’s what for me is the waking up of empathy. It’s the moving away from the intellectual and conceptual to a thinking with feeling. When people actually start to feel it, the outrage is unstoppable.


Where do you see us going as a society if we do not make changes in our thoughts and actions?


We are headed toward the collapse of the American Empire, the United States’ dominance, and the global monetary system. The best way to meet that is not to steal and hoard wealth, it is to strengthen one’s ability to imagine and create. That challenge is going to be different for each one of us. To use creativity to meet the unexpected in productive ways. That’s what Nashville Visionaries is about.


Carl Pope, The Bad Air Smelled of Roses from the book The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, 2017. Photo courtesy of Carl Pope.


Your art does not feel not look futuristic, but it is connected with time travel. The quotations from the past you include in your posters echo truths of today and perhaps tomorrow. Would you call yourself an Afrofuturist?


I was 19 years old listening to Funkadelic albums. I saw George Clinton land the mothership in Indianapolis in the 70s. I am an Afrofuturist that does not look like other Afrofuturists because I am not hooked up with stylistic trappings. Those issues of time travel and future past are part of my work, though. I am not using the flashy, in-your-face visual markers, but it is there in the way that I implement my ideas. It is about using imagination that is unhinged by the limitations of the body, to rethink how we approach conventional ideas, what we can and cannot think. I think Afrofuturism offers new possibilities, but you aren’t going to see me wearing silver knee-high boots with a matching afro and Apple computer.


So you are a luddite futurist?


I always felt that – being black and a futurist – I would have to be in the desert outside the shining global city in the future. I would not have access to that technically advanced society, but I can think in the same way as the people in the shining global city. I imagine, how can I as an Afrofuturist think in the same kinds of ways, but without access to that technology. I always thought that the technologies for someone like that would be the technologies available in a person’s consciousness. Whether you want to call them psychic gifts or superhuman abilities. Where I would place myself as an Afrofuturist is thinking of those technologies not as mechanical or electronic, but as abilities that lie at the edge of human possibilities. Those capabilities are available to me as I realize my potential as a human being without a scientific intervention or computer.


Are you fighting for the individual or society with your art?


I want to create a culture that is part of our evolutionary process. Becoming a cog in a machine is the antithesis of my evolutionary process as a human being. This is America, you want to be a machine? You can be that. I’m not interested in that. My challenge is to develop my subjectivity. For me what explodes the issues of the singularity, racism, white supremacy, colonization, abject corporate capitalism, neoliberalism, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and all of that is a healthy relationship to truth and self honesty. My revolution is a revolution of self-honesty. Dropping the defenses or fears that keep you from pursuing self-honesty and feeling the truth of things.


How can we better approach self-honesty?


When you have a hierarchical mindset, you begin to categorize everything in terms of that particular mindset. We do it automatically because we are socialized into a culture that does that until a person wakes up to realize what they are doing and rejects it. By default, if you have not consciously done that rejection, if you are constantly reading things that are hierarchical with binary opposition…Well, that’s why racism and white supremacy are so easily ingrained in both unconscious black people and unconscious white people. It’s the system to which we are acclimated without thinking. Until a person wakes up and says no to it and is conscious of its influence in every way, they are stuck. Self-honesty is the only way we can break free from being colonized in the mind.


Using text in your art strikes at the power of words. Why do you think language is significant to societal change?


People think when they see the sun going down in the sky, the sun is setting. No, the sun is not setting. It is the earth that is moving. Our language defines our reality. “Setting” is not a truthful statement about what you see happening in the sky. That slip creates a false sense of reality because we allow ourselves to use false language that influences our perspective about what is true.


What kind of art do you imagine will be most relevant in the future?


The art that is going to reach people is not the art you see at Chelsea that sells for $20 million. It’s going to be something else that touches people’s sense of urgency. It might be a video of someone getting murdered or a book that sparks someone’s imagination. It is going to easily circulate in the same kind of ways as my posters. I’m using creativity to strike a nerve in culture.


Sara Lee Burd writes about art from Nashville, TN