The artist on the underground music preserving Black culture and why he chose a career in art over race car engineering.
People are quite literally buzzing around Emmanuel Massillon. At just 23, the New York-based artist is about to open a show of his work in Paris, the very first international show of his career, and the preparation is going at full steam. Pausing only to speak with Platform, the stylish, multi-disciplinary artist touched on the meaning of sunflower seeds in his work, the underground rap he feels preserves inner-city culture and his love of high-performance cars.
You use so many different materials in your work. Did that start off intentionally, or did it evolve over time?
I think it mostly evolved over time. My introduction to making art at a fine art level was photography because you don't need a fancy studio or a whole bunch of knowledge of art history. Everybody has a camera, whether it’s a cell phone or a DLSR.
I got introduced to fine art photography in high school, and then I started going to museums more. I come from Washington DC, and the cool thing with Washington DC is that most of the museums are free. You can literally just walk into world-class museums like the Hirshhorn, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery, and you can see world-class art for free. I started looking at a lot of photographers, and then I started noticing this great abstractionist, conceptual art, all of it just slapping me in the face. I was like, “You know what, that's cool. I kind of want to do that.” But I took my time trying to figure out what I want to say. I ended up in the conceptual mode because most of my work talks about the history of the African diaspora.
Currently, my main focus is on inner-city culture. Everything I wanted to say about growing up in the inner city of Washington DC and African history, there were so many different topics within them to talk about that the only way I could really get my point across was through a multimedia practice. Picking this kind of work and being conceptual gave me the freedom to talk about what I want to talk about. I couldn't be boxed in because, even now, when people talk about painting, they say, “Oh, you're just a painter. You're just a sculptor.” I never wanted to be boxed in with any particular thing. Just doing that gave me freedom.
Is there any one medium that you revel in more than the others right now?
I think it depends on what I'm trying to say. If I have an idea in my head, I just sit back. Then I say, “OK, which is the best medium to convey this idea?” For instance, I have a sunflower seed series of paintings, in which I talk about my experience growing up in the food desert of Washington DC, and attending school, and people not having adequate access to fresh food for breakfast. To talk about a food desert, the sunflower seeds applied to a canvas might be better than having sunflower seeds on a sculpture. Or if I want to talk about African heritage in a very direct way, I'll use wood assemblage. I think of myself almost like a musician. I take a musician's approach. Most love songs are soft and slow. If I’m I’m trying to talk about love, I might take a softer approach. If I'm talking about something a little more rough or vibrant like turning up in a club or party music, it's going to be more upbeat.
You mentioned some things already, but what usually sparks ideas for new work?
A lot of my inspiration actually comes from lived experience. For instance, when I was talking about food deserts. I was in a food desert and went to school with people who got addicted to sodium from salty snacks because there was no access to food. I have another series of works, my dog food paintings, that talk about Black people in America's history with dogs and the civil rights movement. And dog food is also a slang term for heroin. And heroin and the civil rights movement directly affected Black people at the same time, around the late 60s, early 70s.
You're a curator in addition to being an artist. What drives you to curate and put on a show? Is the intention any different from making your own work?
I think with me being a conceptual artist, it’s been a little harder to get shows because, especially in my work, I wouldn't say there’s a sense of vulgarity to it almost, but I'm representing real life. A lot of people in the art world want art as an escape from reality. They don't want to be reminded of this harsh reality and go get happier work. But for me as a curator and an artist leveling up a bit in the art world, I have a little more access to collectors and galleries now, and people follow what I do. We have a term in the streets: my name ring bells. I know that I could put people in an exhibition and people would follow. And as a curator, I saw the need to get other people in my community to get grants and to get certain institutions to fund shows. It’s also a conceptual art piece in itself, just getting people you never think will be in a room together or younger artists who nobody cares about just putting good quality work out. I think it's very important.
What you said about audience expectations is really interesting. Do you feel like, as you're beginning to grow in your career, you can push those comfort zones a little bit more? Is that something you're trying to do?
Yeah, I think I do try to push the comfort zones a lot. Especially in this Black art world bubble in New York, there's a heavy demand for figuration, a heavy demand for and romanticization of the Black figure. As a conceptual artist in this craze of Black figuration, it's hard because people would rather have that. And compared to abstraction or conceptual art, figuration is easier to digest because, for hundreds of years, people have been familiar with figuration in general, even if it wasn’t Black figuration. And then abstraction came and you have to have art education to understand abstraction. The average person might not see abstraction, so I understand that.
It's hard to compete and make the kind of work I do want to make because I’m young. I do save a lot of works in my head for later when I get a little more established. But it is a battle being a conceptual artist. Because you're fighting against all the figurative painters to get attention or shows. And then abstraction is kind of coming back in a way because people are getting tired of figuration, so now, you're fighting against abstraction. Where do you fit in? Nobody really gives a fuck about sculpture. It exists in this weird gray area. But that's not really going to stop me from making work. I feel like the work I'm making is very important to me and the people in my community and the people I make work for. So I'm just going to continue to do what I do.
One of the things I’ve heard remarked on about you is just how much you've accomplished so early in your career. I was wondering if that’s something that you hear from other people as well, or if it's something you think about?
I am very grateful because there's a long lineage of African American artists that paved the way for me. I never take it for granted. One of my favorite artists is Charles White, and he had a solo exhibition at a major museum. He couldn't even go into the museum because of segregation. My last solo show I had with Super Gallery, the show sold out, and I'm very grateful just to have stuff like that. I'm kind of surprised sometimes that my work is selling and people are giving me attention. I'm just grateful.
I read somewhere that you view jazz, R&B and rap as really important preservers of Black culture. Who are some of the musical artists who’ve had a really big impact on you, or who you enjoy listening to the most?
I would say a lot of music that inspires me right now is underground rap from the Washington DC area. I feel like this kind of Black underground rap is the true preservation of inner-city culture. And even mainstream rap as well, because I think a lot of times when we listen to rap music, it's about the beat. I was talking to my gallery in France today and they were like, “In France, rap music is really big, but we don't understand the English. We just like the beat.” I was explaining to them that rap itself is almost like poetry because it's lined up in stanzas. And when you really read the lyrics, they're not talking about party music subjects. The beat is like a party beat, but they're talking about drug addiction, sex addiction, mass incarceration. They're talking about running with the police.
I think about the music as the preserver of Black culture because if you go through any part of American Black music–you go to anything in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s–if you want to know what was going on at that time, you can listen to the music, and the music was a way to preserve history. Today, when you hear a Future song, you just like it. But if you really read Future lyrics, and listen to what he's talking about, he's talking about his drug addiction and the friends he lost in the streets. If you listen to the music, a lot of people are really hurting.
I think through my artwork, I use a lot of regional slang from all over the United States from these inner cities and give visualization to what's really going on. And I bring it with African culture, so it's a kind of weird twist. I think that's why a lot of people are really interested in my work, because it's something new that a lot of people really haven't seen. I think [David] Hammons touched on it a little bit. You might get a little bit of Terry Atkins, but this is new, fresh. And it's barely any research because it's lived experience; it's organic and natural.
Since we touched on music, what are some of the other things outside of art that you're really into?
It's crazy because [Platform] sent me a question that asked, “If you weren't an artist, what would you do?” My answer's crazy: I would be a high-performance race engineer. I just love cars and automotive history, especially in America, because America has a lot of good automobiles and automobile companies. I just love design and nice things. I like to build things with my hands. My first love before art was cars. They’ve always fascinated me.
Is there anything that made you choose art over cars as a career path?
I was fortunate to go to one of the better schools in the Washington DC area and got introduced to art at a very early age. My mother knew the kind of neighborhood I lived in, and she knew the areas and the people I associated with growing up. She was like, “When Emmanuel is in middle school and high school, I want him to be exposed to music." So my mother made me play in the orchestra, and I know how to read music. And I was in an art program, so I learned how to draw very early. I won several competitions for art at a very young age. I was always into art. I like cars, but I never really had an outlet to go explore them. Art was one of those things you could do anywhere. If you literally just had a pen and a piece of paper, you could do whatever you wanted. Cars weren’t really accessible to me, so maybe that's why I didn't get into them more.
That makes a lot of sense. I was curious, there's so much media thrown out there that things can seem like a blur. I was wondering if there’s anything that you've come across lately that stuck with you?
This might sound a little crazy, but lately, I've been listening to a lot of this rapper named G Herbo. He’s kind of an acquired taste because his, what we call flow, the way he delivers his words, it's very different from other rappers. It's not like he's rapping; it's almost like he's talking over a beat. But I like it because it's organic and it's raw. I started listening to his lyrics, and I said, “Wait, he's talking about leveling up through the economic status of America.” When he was poor, he used to eat a lot of the lower-end foods, but now that he's rich, he eats a lot of higher-end foods, enjoys the finer things in life. And I think he has a great connection with Dr. Claude Anderson, this pan-African scholar who talks about Black economics. They talk about the same things but in a different way, like Black independence and Black people's access to wealth in America. That interested me so much that I named a piece after both of them. But the people who see the work don't even know what the fuck I'm talking about. Their work influences me to go in the direction of Rick Lowe. He makes these grid-format paintings with these hundred dollar bills as the underpainting; he also talks about Black people's access to wealth. I don't know if you're familiar with hip-hop music, the production of hip-hop music and the art form of sampling, but I use the ideology of sampling, sampling from different things to make one kind of musical composition, if that makes any sense.
OK, last one: Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
I never really get invited to talk about my work. I think where I can talk about the work the most is Instagram. I wish I had more platforms outside of Instagram to talk about it. Like you said earlier, the work is so complex. It's different, as they say, to hear it from the horse's mouth.