text JESSICA AIMUFUA
At once a structure of coherent units and a collection of disjointed parts, BlackMass invokes an aggregate of Blackness, of matter in resistance. Birthed in autumn 2019, the publishing enterprise is all about collaboration and kinship, with contributors such as artists Frida Orupabo, Devin B Johnson and Jacob Mason-Macklin making up their group of close friends and confidants. “This is not some random thing where people hit it off and jump aboard, it is the real thing,” founder Yusuf Hassan explains.
Over the past year, BlackMass has masterminded more than a dozen projects and publications without taking heed of the gatekeeping of today’s commodity-ridden media industry – or trading on its recent pivot to diversity. “It’s important to note that our way of operating is very thought-out and intentional, not just some aesthetic gesture,” main collaborator Kwamé Sorrell reasons. It’s a sentiment mirrored by the collective’s attention to craft and the multiplicity of their references. Combining archival photographs and found print material with poetry and jazz music, BlackMass grapples with the blurred lines and idiosyncrasies which make up the collective improvisation of African diasporic culture.
Virtually syncopated and scattered across time zones, Sorrell and Hassan discuss the inspiration behind BlackMass’s visual language, and their playful approach to tending to the ‘exquisite corpse’ that is independent publishing.
How did BlackMass Publishing come about?
Yusuf Hassan: I didn’t have a particular mission but it began when I invited Kwamé, ( Jacob) and Devin to contribute to (a book) called Project BlackMass that I was working on. I wanted to see how our work would look next to each other. So for one month I compiled a bunch of texts and images, inviting them along with seven other artists to contribute, and it became this 172-page book that never went into production. It did, however, wind up being acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. So community and collaboration have been a big part of your practice from the start?
YH: Yeah. And I don’t want to sound corny, but the name is BlackMass. Initially I was just thinking of a literal mass of Black people working with each other in different media through print. Collaboration allows the work to take different shapes and forms and for me it is very therapeutic to work with other people, especially if print is not their initial practice. That also ties into your improvisational and process-oriented way of distributing.
Kwamé Sorrell: (Hassan’s 2019 book for the imprint) tsé tsé is a good example of that.
YH: Yeah, the way that book came together was very improvisational, from the design (to the way that) every image in each (copy of the book) is in a different order. Each book is actually made (in the style of) Butch Morris’s conduction of free jazz performances. Morris’s sets are composed of all these different sounds and forms, and no two performances sounds alike – that’s how I wanted the book to flow.
KS: I was in Paris and Yusuf was in New York as we were working on the book together. In designing the cover, I sourced images from an encyclopedia I found: I used the materials that were available to me. And the book has that same spirit – free jazz, I guess, right? (laughs)
YH: Yeah! What’s so unique about the process of this book is that it is actually still in transition. It started off as 235 pages. Now I believe it is (more than) 250 pages. At the end of the edition, who knows, it may be 300! The final page is yet to be added. I love the idea of the book always in transition, like a metamorphosis.
YH: That’s what I wanted to create with it; to me it was one of the most important elements of the book. It even goes back to the process itself. With Project BlackMass, for instance, I’d be on the train and suddenly have this vision to add a page. I carried this book around with me at all times; it was still in transition (right) up to getting it bound. So it’s not merely about testing the limits of print media or objecting to its supposed outdatedness. It’s like that scattered motion is at the root of your very method.
KS: Yeah, the medium is the message, and vice versa! With that in mind, how did you approach your collaborative art project for this issue?
KS: I think the best way to explain it is an exquisite corpse. The surrealist technique?
KS: Yeah, (you can) think of BlackMass as an exquisite corpse from beginning to end. It is constantly being added to. We approached this spread in a similar way. Yusuf is the one who selected the images, and I helped to edit it and move things around.
YH: I wanted to create this moody, cinematic atmosphere. For me, imagery is a huge thing: it’s my way of building poetry through visual language. I asked myself, ‘If I made a film, what would it look like? What would the characters look like? How would I edit it?’ And to have Kwamé contribute the text was a very important aspect; (it’s) like he added a script to the movie.
KS: Yeah, it’s a Black epic of sorts. YH: The work operates as a unit, as well as separately. Everything concludes in its own way, and if you were to break (the pieces) apart they could still function on their own. It makes me think of this poetry collection by Frank David Marshall, because these are some Black Moods for sure! On that
JAMAICA, NY 11431
note, are there any other artists who have influenced your practice?
KS: (laughs) Black moods, I like that.
YH: So there’s Butch Morris, who I mentioned. Also Ted Joans, a beat poet from the 70s. He reminds me of myself in a way, you know – he was known to be a drifter. Like, I can’t sit still, I’m always out. (laughs) I also continue to develop ideas while in the process, and I often get the best ideas while I’m working in real-time. Do you consider yourselves a part of the Black publishing canon?
KS: I think that’s for other people to (decide)... Leave that to posterity?
KS: Yes, that’s it! The books are in institutions, so let them define it. It’s not really up to us to say that we’re making Black history. Can you tell me about some of your current or upcoming projects?
YH: The pandemic brought things to a temporary halt, of course. (But) one day Kwamé (had the idea) to start this mail-in programme where Black artists from all over the world can mail in a work to our PO Box. What’s the address?
YH: That would be BlackMass Publishing, PO Box 311277, Jamaica, NY 11431. (laughs) It is such a beautiful, honest (idea) to continue our efforts and allow people to still be engaged in the practice. Someone can send in a drawing or a script or even music; it’s not limited to print media. We encourage people to send whatever they want and we’ll include it in some capacity in the future, as we will be archiving the material. If they want to send an empty envelope, we’ll take it. (laughs)
KS: I guess that would be our contribution to Black publishing. We are not really trying to start new conversations, but there are conversations happening all over which we are a part of. I think we are making a place for these kinds of exchanges to continue and to grow. It’s not just this insular, homogeneous thing – it’s expanding.
DAZED AUTUMN 2020