The Amazing Artistic Adventures of Kevin Sipp
In his 2014 graphic novel, The Amazing Adventures of David Walker Blackstone, artist Kevin Sipp relays the epic encounters of protagonist David Walker Blackstone, an explorer and initiate of an array of African-based mystical traditions born into slavery on the Amelia islands off the coast of Florida in 1840. Epitomizing the hero’s journey, the indomitable Blackstone travels the world, fights in the civil war, and covers spiritual matters for a Boston newspaper before being recruited for his mystical proclivities by a secret society of former abolitionists and freedom fighters headed by Frederick Douglass. Ultimately, Blackstone “finds himself at the vanguard of a war between men, demons, and gods for the soul of the world.”
Sipp’s diverse and adventurous life in the arts could also be described as amazing. A fine artist, author, independent scholar, poet, art critic, and curator with expertise in printmaking, painting, sculpture and multi-media installation, Sipp has devoted his artistic career to engaging world spiritual traditions while paying homage to the African roots of his heritage and exploring the impact of the world upon it. His artwork has appeared in solo and group exhibitions across the globe, he has been a visiting art scholar at numerous educational institutions, and his writings have appeared in such publications as Art Papers and the International Review of African American Art. He has traveled to South Africa on an artist residency and lectured at the University of Cape Town along with David Driskell, and his prints have been featured in exhibitions by renowned South African master printmaker, Malcolm Christian. He has shared the stage as a poet and spoken word artist with the likes of Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka. He has recorded with famed Hip Hop collective, The Dungeon Family, his poetic vocals appearing on an album track by Organized Noize artist, EJ Da Witch Doctor. And he once was the front man and lead vocalist for a hardcore punk-rock band.
This month, at the Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans, Sipp’s unique and diverse trajectory in art continues with his exhibition, Pantheon: Black Noise Navigators, running from January 7 through February 28.
“It’s a series of works on paper inspired by the musicians whom I love that are in my collection of music,” points out Sipp, noting “it’s also inspired by the tradition of the Japanese tattoo body suit. What I wanted to do was use the template of the Japanese tattoo traditions to manifest what I visualized when I’d listened to the music of my favorite musicians, as if their music became tattoos on their bodies. And so the current show is a meditation on the spirituality and historiography of all my favorite musicians.”
Consistently, Sipp’s artistic statement promotes how his “work emerges through the layering and remixing of the visual, literary and sonic production of the African Diaspora” with a foundational aesthetic focused on the influence of African-derived culture and the associated aspects of African myth, Afrofuturism, cultural identity, colonial history, music, politics, and comics.
Noted artist and educator Kevin Cole, who has known Sipp for over three decades, identifies a primary source of his artistic appeal.
“I think it is his exploration of the spirituality in the African Diaspora,” affirms Cole, a process “of him understanding where he came from, and then bringing it farther into the light of his culture using music, be it Hip Hop or Coltrane.” He cites the early influence of diverse and eclectic forms of music, like that of the incomparable Sun Ra, on Sipp’s artistic path.
Fittingly, Sipp’s diverse approach to the arts was bloodborne. His mother, who studied both art and math in college, was a singer, dancer, painter, accountant and social worker who encouraged her children to express themselves creatively. “She was a news junkie,” he reports of Valetta Sipp, who encouraged dinner table conversations about life, art, and culture while rearing her kids in Daytona Beach, Florida. “She was always raising us to be creative, always raising us to be inquisitive, but also raising us to make sure we researched and held ourselves and others accountable to what they put out in the world.” In doing so, “she gave us the space to voice our own opinions about things and I have carried that forward. I inherited from her a love of reading, a love of books, and a love of diversity in the world, and all that manifests in my art.”
That same blood flowed through generations before manifesting with Sipp’s able hands. His grandfather, a World War II vet who fought in North Africa and Italy, was a brick mason; his grandmother, a seamstress. He assisted them growing up, working with his hands to build firm structures while also cutting patterns from soft fabric. By age 12, Sipp was mixing mud while accompanying his grandfather on construction gigs.
“It always amazed me how they could arrive at the site with a ton of bricks set aside and build a structure from the ground up, from laying the foundation to pouring the concrete, to putting up the wood, to putting the bricks over the wood, to putting up the drywall,” marvels Sipp. “I mean, just watching them build a house was a wonder to me as a child, and it gave me a fundamental sense of pride knowing that my grandfather was not only a master at doing it but he trained so many others to do it. And looking at him read the construction plans and read the blueprints, I became fascinated with those blue lines on a sheet of paper and how they could take these two-dimensional lines and turn them into three-dimensional structures. So I became extremely fascinated with maps and lines.”
“I saw the same carryover with my grandmother, creating, sewing clothes for people,” continues Sipp, recalling how people would bring her fabric and “she would take out these patterns and make their dresses and suits. And then she would improvise to make her own creation, so I had a deep appreciation for being able to make things with one’s own hands. And that carried over into my art making, because I used to take her scraps and patterns and make collages out of them.”
The impact of those who nurtured him was not limited to art, but foundational. Though raised Southern Baptist, Sipp clarifies how his family was “nominally Christian” and how they “always left room for other spiritual practices” be they African or other. “They understood the power of the divine but they did not beat you over the head with it,” stresses Sipp, noting he was raised to “understand that you can have a base faith but, at the end of the day, what determines the people is the works they do, not the names they call themselves.” Consistent with this mindset is his lifelong embrace of “roots tradition” inspired by his grandfather’s tales of the “unofficial doctors in his community who healed the families he knew, who healed him, and who used plants, fauna and the natural environment and elements around them to do so without a PhD or an affordable education.”
His grandparent’s regular poker parties, filled with music, served as a big influence as well. During his August 2022 panel talk at “The Dirty South” symposium held at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, Sipp offered, “What I remember most about that was just the sonic joy of it and so I fell in love early with this idea of music as transcendence beyond the church… [W]hen my grandmother threw a poker party, she had a friend who would force her children to bring several crates of records with them that she had hand-selected and we would have to play the records at the poker party while the elders were playing all night, and we would start taking the old records that were no longer in use and making art out of the records… [S]o I was always making things with my hands, making objects, so I never was really bored. And I found out that, through art making, you were always thinking actively about how to transform the world.”
In the late 1980s, Sipp traveled north to attend the Atlanta College of Art. There, he joined with classmates Radcliffe Bailey and Paul Evans to challenge the school’s racially-skewed art history texts and its all-consuming focus on European art history, particularly given these students’ proud acknowledgement of the Harlem Renaissance, AfriCobra, and the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Upon launching an activist art group called Visions of Color, Sipp and other students successfully advocated for additional art history teachers and supplementary courses more relevant to Black students while using their own organizational funds to bring in visiting professors of color. Recognizing that the lack of respect for Black and Brown bodies mirrored the lack of respect for Black art and culture, the dedicated collective began holding professional art shows at off-campus venues like the Neighborhood Art Center and Atlanta Junior College to further affirm their work and traditions.
During Sipp’s studies at the Atlanta College of Art, Cole—already an accomplished artist teaching at Georgia State—was brought in to critique student works. “Tom Francis, a friend who was at the college for years, would invite me in because there wasn’t a lot of Black faculty there,” remembers Cole, laughing that “it was funny ‘cause, at that time, there was no internet, so they were shocked when they saw I was Black.” In his mid-thirties at the time, Cole would give feedback to each student’s art project before proposing a way to improve or fix it. “Any time I do a critique, given I like to read, I’m gonna always refer one or two works that you need to look at to find your own voice,” explains Cole. “And one thing I liked about Kevin was that Kevin wrote poetry, did a lot of reading, and knew a lot about art history.”
“He was really like a walking encyclopedia,” continues Cole. “I mean, the dude can read.”
Upon graduating, Sipp’s knowledge, intellect, and voice would see him hired as curator of Hammonds House Museum, an Atlanta landmark celebrating the cultural diversity and legacy of artists of African descent. During his 15-year term, he hosted a collection of over 400 artworks including many by such renowned Black artists as Bailey, Romare Bearden, and Elizabeth Catlett. Sipp would go on to become the Cultural Affairs and Public Art Coordinator for the City of Atlanta. He is currently Director of Visual Production at Sipp Creative, a fine art consulting, design and production studio.
“Kevin was one of the first people I met when I moved to Atlanta in ’96 and it was through him that I was introduced to the area art scene,” says Lillian Blades, an Atlanta-based mixed media assemblage artist. “I would hang out with Kevin at the Hammonds House when he was the curator there, and everybody comes in there,” stresses Blades, characterizing it as “just like going to college for art and art history. So I learned a lot about the art scene here in Atlanta and met a lot of artists through Kevin and the Hammonds House, and I ultimately had a solo show there in 2009, one of the last shows he curated there.”
Describing his lifepath and artwork as both “phenomenal” and “underrated,” Blades feels Sipp is “all about the patchwork of art, of overlapping, like a DJ mixing music together, mixing information together in a collage-like way. He knows so much information, historically, spiritually, and he studies lots of books so when you conversate with him, he weaves it all together.” With such guidance, continues Blades, “I learned about Yoruba deities and how it all paralleled with Egyptology, with Christianity, the stories, the myths and how they’re interconnected with numerology, with colors, and how all of it interrelates. And that made a lot of sense for me for the way I approached the work, because I wanted the work to resonate on all those levels. So to have somebody to bounce information off like that, and to understand the reasoning behind why you do certain things, he would be able to point that information out.”
But even for all his knowledge and accomplishments over the years, there’s something else about Kevin Sipp, something beyond accolades or metrics, something far more metaphysical. Perhaps it is because of his relentless lifelong pursuit of knowledge, be it art or literature; perhaps it was his progressive-minded upbringing, one largely devoid of the fearmongering indoctrination of religion; perhaps his unique and eclectic worldview is what has allowed Sipp to see truth where others are afraid to look, to submit to intellectual or cultural curiosity where others bail or turn a blind eye, to peer into the darkness and, unlike most, have the courage to see his own image staring back.
Such is the case with his ongoing artistic representations of nkisi objects from the Kongo people of Central Africa, spiritual objects Sipp first encountered at a Florida museum as a child. “I was just always fascinated by this structure, this sculptural piece with all these nails. And of course, when you’re growing up in semi-ignorance, the first thing you think about is what Hollywood has taught you, the voodoo doll with the pins and needles,” he says, acknowledging the Western fetishizing or demonization of such objects and how those museum officials did not understand the “full weight of the symbolic meaning behind all the parts of this African object from the Congo with medicine tags and nails in it.” Later, in college, Sipp viewed Alvia Wardlaw’s Ancestral Legacy exhibition at the High Museum “which was just mind-blowing to me. And that was the first time I encountered the work of Renée Stout and how she had turned herself into this nkisi object” and how she “totally turned it on its head and into this feminine power object with herself as the subject. From that point on, I wanted to learn more about it.”
Sipp dug deeper into the origins of the nkisi and “this merger of art ritual practice and object, which became very important to me. The fact that you have this tradition in the Congo of this highly intelligent individual who held all the songs of a culture, who held the parables of a culture, who held the medicine of a culture, but who also was, in his own way, a ritualistic artisan who created this object of power that was supposed to be a mediator between humans and the divine. And so, for me, it just became a very important symbolic object.”
What’s ultimately important to Sipp is the amazing culture and people that bore him, nurtured him, fed his intellect, guided his young hands, and fueled his art.
“Let’s be very clear,” stresses Sipp. “They did a really good number on us. And when I say they, I’m talking about those who enslaved us. What they brought to America from the west coast, the middle, and the east coast of Africa were descendants of the first human beings who walked this earth, that means the first human beings who saw the stars and laid down what we call faith and religion, the first builders of civilization. We were powerful beings, and still are, and the first thing the whites who enslaved us and brought us to the Americas had to do was to literally try and destroy our spirits and our minds while holding onto our bodies. So it is deeply important to me to honor those who were enslaved and survived because I have no shame in saying I am descended from slaves.”
Sipp pushes the point further, promoting how he uses his art to pay tribute to “those who survived one of the most atrocious events in human history, came out on the other side, and gave birth to us. That’s some profound power for me, what they were able to recreate of themselves, what they were able to hold on to spiritually because they couldn’t hold on to things physically, and what they were able to rebuild of their spiritual traditions here in the Americas.”
“All that stuff is very important to me,” continues Sipp, “and how it pops up in everything from quilt making to Hip Hop lyrics to R&B songs to our dancing to you name it. I am truly in love with our people and the cultures we continually create and manifest in this world.”
“And I just try to use my art to show my appreciation for that.”
D. AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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