Albert Chong is overseeing the installation of Absolute Chong, a visual narrative on race, identity, family, nationalism, mysticism and spirituality at Hammonds House Museum (through January 18) when he pauses to explains his initial captivation with photography.
“My interest in pictures goes back to the family photo album. Being the last out of nine children was like coming into a movie near the end and trying to figure out what the film was about. The album became my way of knowing what the family was about, and led to my interest in the power of photos.”
As interested in the “netherworld and alchemy” of the darkroom as the prints themselves, the emerging photographer honed his technical skills at the School of Visual Arts (B.F.A., 1981) in New York, where Professor Frances Mclaughlin-Gill (the first female photographer under contract for Vogue magazine) was an early supporter and mentor.
Calling art “humanity’s second language,” he says he believes the universal tongue permits not only deep communication, but also “an exchange of ideas at a faster rate and with more accessibility and subtle nuances than conventional methods of communication.”
Chong, a professor of photography at the University of Colorado Boulder, says his primary responsibility as an artist is to stay out of his own way so that primal instincts, as opposed to intellect, can facilitate his expression.
“I have to change my state of mind though meditation, shut down the logical brain and channel the sixth sense,” he says.
Absolute Chong is a sampling of the Jamaican-born photographer’s work between 1986 and the early 2000s. Comprised of three groupings, it includes still life photographs, portraits taken in Ethiopia and Jamaica, both straight and setup tableaux, and ofrendas (offerings) to the ancestors in a suite called Throne Series.
Chong, who is prone to “picking things up off the street and dragging them inside,” prefers to work with organic materials in setups for photos and installations. Burlap (known as a crocus-sack in Jamaica) serves as a backdrop for many of his photomontages, and conjures the 112-pound bags of sugar that were the stock in trade of his family’s confectionery business in Kingston. Skulls, bones, rawhide, hair, horns, shells, leaves, flowers and fruit appear with frequency. He sometimes anchors larger compositions with governmental documents which he calls “markers of our presence in society [that] for better or worse… remain well after we’re gone,” as in My Jamaican Passport (1992). (His passport photo, a self-portrait, bears a striking resemblance to Bob Marley.)
African archetypes of warriors, sages, mystics, famers, slaves and kings are all recurring themes. As well, references to Santería (a religion that developed among the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Spanish Empire), Voodoo and Candomblé (a creolization of traditional beliefs brought from West Africa in the Portuguese Empire) are woven through Chong’s work.
Tracy Murrell, the Atlanta-based artist who curated Absolute Chong explains, “Albert’s show is about how history, family, culture, nature are all intertwined. Whether pictures or installations, his color work is so lush and the symbolism so beautifully rendered that it’s arresting.”
The same can be said of black-and-white portraits taken in Jamaica’s rural parish of St. Ann, whose rustic countryside and inhabitants are an ongoing source of inspiration.
His subjects’ exterior lives are etched on everything from their eyes as they gaze into the camera’s lens to the smoothness or roughness of their hands. Style of dress and body language are other tells — the combination of which might convey a family’s dignity in poverty, the hyper-masculine affect of a streetwise young man, the tensile strength of an elder who has spent a lifetime engaged in back-breaking, physical labor outdoors.
Before snapping his subjects, Chong’s instructions are minimal. “These photographs are for posterity,” he tells them. “How do you want to be seen in 20 years?”
Love and Loss, an idealized studio portrait, is an homage to his Aunt Winnie, who once tearfully confessed to her niece what it felt like “to be touched by somebody you really don’t love for all these years,” when talking about her long and loveless marriage.
One of his “offerings,” a license plate bordered by flowers and tomatillo pods, is a dual memorial to man and the banality of evil: The tag once hung from the pick-up truck of a known white supremacist who dragged James Byrd, a black man, to his death in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.
Says Chong, “I am mining the past in regard to these histories that somewhat go untold…giving voice to those whose voices were silenced.”