Photo from the series “Black Matter, 2018” by Oxossi Ayofemi
Photo from the series “Black Matter, 2018” by Oxossi Ayofemi

‘Black Matter’: an artist and a scientist look at the unseen in culture and cosmos

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Oxossi Ayofemi, an Oakland- and San Francisco-based artist, was traveling on BART one day when a pair of turf dancers began to perform in her train car. Most people respond by staring in shock or wonder at the dancers’ contortions, or by looking down so they won’t feel obliged to fish in their pockets for change.

But Ayofemi did neither. She watched with curiosity and admiration. Then she spoke to them.

The upshot of that communication was an artistic collaboration that went far beyond the BART dancers’ wildest dreams. They became actors in her multimedia exploration of the topic “Black Matter,” in concert with Stanford University astrophysicist Risa Wechsler, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. And on Aug. 9, they will visit the CJM for the first time as part of a public presentation of the exhibit, which opened July 26.

Ayofemi’s photos and videos of the two dancers formed one of three facets of her project. While informed by the concept of dark matter and dark energy in the field of physics, Ayofemi is interested in what she calls “notions of presence and absence” in the world around us, and particularly the richness of African American culture that is often hidden or invisible to others in the mainstream environment. Thus, where some may see underemployed youth performing for coins on public transportation, Ayofemi sees magic and capacity, strength and beauty.

Oxossi Ayofemi, from the series Untitled (Dark Energy), 2017
Digital image from the series Untitled (Dark Energy), 2017, Oxossi Ayofemi, courtesy of the artist.

The second aspect of her exhibit includes her taped conversations with Wechsler, NASA images of the star-filled universe and a “cosmic soundscape” somehow generated by measurements of dark energy from the Stanford astrophysics lab where the associate professor conducts research.

The third part has to do with her initiative to take an abandoned building in the Fillmore District of San Francisco and, as she says, “find a way to activate that space, investing it with human energy and visions of possibility.” Ayofemi says that she is interested in “reimagining the role of an abandoned building in a black neighborhood,” instigating transformation by creating the basis for “a sound economy.” How that takes shape will play out over the coming year, she says.

The initiative that brings these distinct individuals together is the CJM’s ongoing exhibition series, “In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art.”

Each year, according to the ancient talmudic principle of havruta that study should always be undertaken with a partner, the museum selects two individuals from disparate fields to bring their particular skills and insights to the investigation of a chosen topic. One of the pair will be an artist, while the other may be a scholar, writer or other professional, and the two engage in dialogue for a 10-week fellowship in creativity, resulting in an exhibit and related programming. Quoting the Talmud, the museum states, “Just as in the case of iron, when one implement sharpens another, so too do two scholars sharpen each other.”

The CJM describes Ayofemi’s previous work around the Bay Area as “experiences that mingle the senses and cross material with the immaterial.” Known to her friends and family as “Binta,” her mediums have included pop-up rock bands, dance works, quilts, landscapes, soundscapes and projects in Oakland involving community gardens and meals that nourish both the bodies and souls of the community. She intends to bring some of those idea-inspired meals to the museum as part of the exhibit’s community programming.

When CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin approached Ayofemi as a potential “Havruta” artist, he gave her carte blanche to find her subject. Curious about the idea of “dark matter,” Ayofemi, who has an MFA in studio art from Stanford University, went to visit Wechsler, the incoming director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford. Wechsler studies the evolution and contents of the universe from its earliest moments to the present day, using large numerical simulations and data from surveys of hundreds of millions of galaxies.

“The project was really her vision,” Wechsler says of Ayofemi. “I shared what we know about the universe and what we don’t know, and gave her a flavor of the tools we’re using to try to understand the way the universe works, with theoretical models and observational results. It’s been remarkably easy to find a common language.”

“I think Risa was excited that her work would resonate with an artist,” Ayofemi says. “This project gave us a chance to put the information we have together and see where it goes.”

Photo from the series “Black Matter, 2018” by Oxossi Ayofemi
“Mirror 1 (Dance Ensemble)” from the series “Black Matter, 2018” by Oxossi Ayofemi

One of things they enjoyed was the visual aspect that astrophysics can now provide, including 3D movies of the universe. The modeling work makes it possible to see and feel galactic phenomena that are mostly inconceivable to mere mortals.

“We’re watching collisions of clumps of dark matter with galaxies inside them,” she says.

Some of those short films will be on view as part of the exhibit, and a special 3D experience is on the program for the Aug. 9 event. The public presentation largely will be a conversation driven by Ayofemi, she says.

One of the fundamental things Wechsler believes in is that “the universe is for everyone,” she says. “It’s such a privilege to get to spend my time thinking about these big questions, and I try to take it to the broadest audience possible. I’m biased maybe, but I think it’s one of the most compelling stories you have.”

Ayofemi seeks the simplicity at the root of the most complex things. So if you feel that — whether in science or art — you kind of get it, but kind of don’t, “It doesn’t matter,” she says, “Just come.”

“Havruta: In That Case: Black Matter – Oxossi Ayofemi and Risa Wechsler,” 6:30 p.m. Aug. 9. Ayofemi and Wechsler will discuss dark matter, the universe, sound, movement, African American pop culture and other topics, followed by a performance by turf dancers. At Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $5 includes admission; free for members.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.