Kenseth Armstead: INFERNO
February 07, 2013 - March 16, 2013
Churner and Churner presents Kenseth Armstead’s INFERNO, a series of graphic novel–inspired drawings that depict the true life story of the slave turned spy James Armistead Lafayette. Armstead’s fifty-one new drawings, tell the story of a double agent who helped end the American Revolution.
Armstead’s project explores the African-American experience inside the Revolution from the perspective of a historical figure, opening up the war to a new cast of heroes. Central among them is James Armistead, a Virginian slave who in 1781 volunteered (with his master’s permission) to spy on the British for the Marquis de Lafayette. Because the British were offering freedom to those who joined their ranks, Armistead was perfectly positioned to pretend he wanted to join Lord Charles Cornwallis’s camp. Cornwallis was so impressed by Armistead as a member of the British Army that he asked him to spy on the Patriots. Such a story of information and disinformation has been mostly lost to history; there are no black 007s in our history books. Armstead himself discovered James Armistead by chance; having stumbled upon the character by accident (the similarity of their names meant that the historical figure once popped up on an internet search), Armstead spent several years researching the character and then wrote a screenplay for a feature film about Armistead with Jaime Foxx cast in the lead role. (There is a certain ferocity to Armstead’s representation of the American Revolution that likens it more to Tarantino’sDjango Unchained than the PBS biopic on General Lafayette.)
It is as a graphic novel, however, that he finally decided to tell the story. The combination of word and image, the juxtaposition of scale, and the crossing of frames as indication of the passing of time were all comic conventions that Armstead was interested in, and he used this pulpy style to comment pointedly on America’s unresolved past with slavery.
Describing Armstead’s drawings, critic Mayukh Sen has written that the story is “alive in every frame, from detailed humanistic close-ups of Armistead to lush renders of landscape. … [The project] fosters the sort of complex historical dialogue that some of the greatest graphic novels of the modern era, from Maus to Persepolis, has ignited.” Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, INFERNO is a provocative combination of political history and memoir.
In the summer of 1781, James Armistead Lafayette was the sneakiest man in America. By providing intelligence, James succeeded in liberating our insurgent forefathers from the British Empire.
Spook™ is a multimedia installation project based on James’ true story as a double agent for America’s first Director of Central Intelligence, George Washington.
The Spook™ project is the only source available to collect and provide detailed information on James Armistead Lafayette’s participation as a double-agent in the American Revolution. Spook™ creates a space to view it as a multimedia artwork. It combines scholarly research and historical documents, with more seductive and ephemeral media objects about James to give greater exposure to the subject of an outrageous historical erasure. The project gives viewers the opportunity to engage this unique story, a slave’s eye view, in the struggle to grasp American freedom.
Spook™ lyrically extends and technologically upgrades the tradition of Neo-classical history painting exploited by Jacques-Louis David. It is inspired by David’s lasting images of Napoleon and the age of revolution. Spook™ operates in critical dialog with David’s example. I recover an obscured fragment using rigorous historical research techniques; the true story of James Armistead Lafayette - his role as the double agent / slave that helped to end the American Revolution. Then like Fred Wilson, I create an ironic, questionable, reality. The formulaic memory changes, requiring a re-assembly of our notion of the American Revolution and the founding fathers.
Memory is alchemy. Recalling a recent moment or hazy event from the distant past requires a murky formula consisting of, image retrieval, conscious mediation, synthesis and utter fabrication. The image is inherently unstable. Memory, personal or social, becomes the act of ordering incomplete pictures.
Spook™ reshapes what is both close at hand and historically distant in a Sisyphean feedback loop. History is used as a creative tool. The process creates an open ended, non-narrative, production environment that is both an engaging critique of guerilla warfare in our insurgency, the American Revolution, and a relevant, current, social document.
Armstead lives & works in Brooklyn, NY. His work is represented by Churner and Churner gallery.