Capturing the Spirit World on Film : Albert Chong's artistic recipe blends Jamaica, Catholicism, Santeria and America in an eclectic artistic stew

Leah Ollman is an art writer based in San Diego

When photographer and installation artist Albert Chong was about 6 years old, his parents bought a new house in Kingston, Jamaica.

Chong's father invited a Catholic priest to bless the house by sprinkling holy water throughout. A few days later, his father brought in another priest, this time a black Obeahman, or shaman, who sacrificed two roosters and scattered their blood not far from where the holy water had just dried.

"My father thought he should cover all his bases," Chong recalls, laughing. "We were Catholics, really. But when things would start getting really bad and you'd see forces that were being worked against you that the regular, established Catholic religion couldn't help you with--you couldn't go to your local priest and say, hey, somebody has worked some wicked magic on me. Yet it's a real thing."

Like his father, Chong has a lot of bases to cover. His life gives new meaning to the overused term multicultural . Half-Chinese, half-Jamaican Chong was raised Catholic but has followed Rastafarianism, the Ethiopian-inspired political/religious movement, and Santeria, the syncretic religion forged by African slaves living under Christian domination in the Caribbean. He is married to Frances Charteris, an artist from England, and their two children, Ayinde and Chinwe, are, he says with pride and just a touch of resignation, very American.

Chong has been included in a steady roster of shows nationally during the last few years, including ones at the New Museum in New York and at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. His work is on view through Nov. 6 at the Porter Randall Gallery in La Jolla and is the subject of a new book called "Ancestral Dialogues," published by the Friends of Photography in San Francisco, which will also exhibit his work in January.

Chong's work not only reflects his rich heritage, it is fully grounded in it, and is his way of honoring the myriad spirits that have infused his life. His work, he says, is an offering to his ancestors. Sometimes he pays homage to specific members of his family, usually his father, and at others, to Jamaican and diasporic African culture in general.

In his large black-and-white photographs, dried flowers, feathers, antique silverware, shells, masks and bones mingle with old family pictures. The still-lifes act as private shrines, monumentalized in two dimensions. In Chong's installations, entire rooms become altar-like environments. Chairs studded with thorns or covered in fish skin sit on carpets of feathers, fruit and coconut shells. A table set for a traditional Jamaican Sunday dinner is Chong's invitation for his ancestral spirits to make themselves at home in his own New World life.

Now teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Chong, 34, recently made a trip with his family to La Jolla, where he received his master of fine arts degree from UC San Diego two years ago. Back on his old stamping grounds, sitting in a friend's apartment near the campus while a pet ferret scampered about, Chong talked about the different, seemingly contradictory strands of his life.

"You don't have to reconcile them, because they're really all one," he explains. "They're not all different. It's a matter of our perspective, or how we think about them. They meet at one point and they have one aim in mind, and that is our ultimate harmony with everything else. That harmony is what we're on the planet for, right?"

Chong flashes one of his broad, ready smiles. A frizzy beard clings to his chin like a stubborn wisp of smoke. He comes across as mellow and lighthearted, but also very protective of what really makes him tick.

Santeria requires a certain amount of initiation and the artist is reticent to speak about it. "Too much of an encroachment," he says, shaking his head. "Almost exploitative. I never want to reveal too much of that stuff."

In his art, he deals freely with the symbols and objects used in Santeria rituals, however. Feathers, bones and skulls of sacrificed animals appear in his photographs as well as on the "thrones" Chong fashions out of conventional chairs. Cowrie shells, traditionally used as currency by the Yoruba and as divination tools by followers of Santeria, show up frequently in the work. For a recent installation at the Bronx Museum of Art, titled "Yin/Yang, Us/Them, Black/White, Good/Bad," Chong made a vest entirely covered with the shells. Viewers were encouraged to try on the vest or the accompanying shirt studded with pine cone "petals" and meditate on that "ultimate harmony" the artist speaks about.

Rastafarian symbols appear, too. Chong's own cut dreadlocks circle a cluster of shells in one photograph, and a marijuana plant, regarded by Rastafarians as a holy herb, appears in several self-portraits from the early 1980s.

Knowing the symbolic meanings of Chong's materials is helpful, but not necessary. It takes no cultural decoding to appreciate the lush textures in his prints or to sense the spiritual presence in his installations. Chong's connections to past generations and distant homelands resonate loud and clear.

"What Albert's talking about is not as foreign as people think," claims New York Whitney Museum of Art curator Thelma Golden, who wrote the essay for Chong's book, which also includes and introduction by poet Quincy Troupe. The references to Rastafari, Yoruba or Afro-Asian culture, however, are particularly familiar on the East Coast, where they are "embedded in the public mind," she says.

Chong left Jamaica, where his parents ran a grocery store and his father was a well-respected justice of the peace, when he was in his late teens.

"That move was one that couldn't be avoided," he says. "If you had major aspirations for yourself, goals and ambitions, Jamaica's a real small place. It would be akin to being a fish that develops in a small tank as opposed to being able to roam the sea."

He moved in with two of his sisters, who lived in Brooklyn. Within that "hotbed of immigrants," he began soaking up the vibrant, transplanted cultures of Santeria and Rastafarianism. The rituals gave him a way to stay connected with his native land while embracing his new one.

At the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he received his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1981, Chong got the standard, late '70s art education, especially in photography, where students were "still getting the Ansel Adams rap and the Stieglitz, Strand and Weston rap."

In the early '80s, things took a dramatic turn. Photographs got bigger, brasher, more political. Artists borrowed shamelessly from the mass media, using its seductive strategies while condemning its overwhelming power to shape experience and personal identity.

The post-modern wave helped open Chong's eyes, sensitizing him to the inadequate--and often nonexistent--representation of artists of color in basic art texts.

"I realized the whole thing was a bit skewed in one direction," Chong recalls. "So I started rethinking exactly where I'm from and what I should be doing. We hear so much about Western or American or white cultural outlooks and so little from other communities. Using familial stories is an alternative way of putting more out there that's about people of color, letting other stories be heard, other viewpoints."

He began photographing himself, usually nude, performing fragmented rituals before a crinkled burlap dropcloth. The "I-Traits," named for the Rastafarian belief that the eye and the "I" are profoundly linked means of perception, brought together childhood memories with timeless forms of worship.

As a boy, Chong would visit Jamaica's sugar factories with his father. He remembers looking up at 50-foot towers of sugar bags and being overwhelmed by the smell of the burlap. Sackcloth, he points outs, is also the cloth of humility. When he photographed his newborn son against the cloth, or himself dancing in a blur with a Palo--a honey, blood and feather anointed staff used in Santeria ceremonies--Chong seemed to be presenting himself and his offspring as new, humble members of an age-old community.

The photographed still-lifes that followed the "I-Traits" are performances in a way, too, Chong says. He talks about assembling the objects--photographs of both of his parents, passports, fruit, bottles, bones, eggshells--as a sacred ritual act, a gathering together of objects of power. Though photographers have made studio set-ups since the earliest days of the camera, Chong links his work more to African art than to photographic tradition.

"I really love those objects. I can look at that stuff and just feel the chills go through my body. That has led to influences in terms of the organic materials in the work and somehow believing that artwork should be infused with a sort of presence. I feel like even a photograph should have the presence of an African sculpture."

Chong's photographs have actually become more sculptural themselves over the years. He has experimented lately with printing some of his earlier black-and-white images on copper plates, letting the emulsion crack and peel in spontaneous patterns. He places dried sunflowers, apples, feathers and half-smoked cigars atop the flaking images then re-photographs the new assemblage in color, creating a remarkably deep and tactile image, an offering "to attract and appease the unseen forces."

The photographs now on view at the Porter Randall Gallery are matted in soft-gauge copper, which Chong has inscribed with passages from his journals, song lyrics, quotes from others and abstract symbols. Chong has also fused his installation work with the private performances of his early self-portraits. In the photograph "Throne for the Gorilla Spirits," for instance, Chong appears as a ghostlike presence blowing smoke, a spiritual cleansing agent, onto a skull. The skull sits among Joshua tree spines on the seat of a chair covered with the skin of codfish, a traditional Jamaican dish dating to the days when African slaves were given dried cod as rations. Coconuts, pineapples, apples and bananas are arranged in concentric circles at the base of the chair.

Though Chong goes off on a lot of tangents, technically, his work has remained quite traditional in format. He has chosen to pursue personal, sensual, spiritual themes when more strident conceptual and political statements are more in vogue. Curators and writers have grouped him with such black photographers as Carrie Mae Weems and Pat Ward Williams, though in the company of their pungent political work, Chong's imagery seems downright sentimental. Surprisingly so, perhaps, considering that Chong is the product of two strains of racial oppression--the slavery of Africans on British colonies in the Caribbean, and when that was abolished in the 1830s, the importation, initially forced, of Chinese laborers to fill the void.

Whitney curator Golden sees that legacy in Chong's work: "The work has a political bent that comes out of its sense of difference," she explains. "He's talking about a specific experience, the Afro-Caribbean experience, the experience of an immigrant looking back at a culture, the use of his father as an archetype. Within those, whether Albert talks about that or not, there are political concerns--colonialism and the politics of immigration, for instance."

Chong himself has a different way of regarding the work, one that gives freely of world views but holds back on political positions.

"It's so easy to lose your enchantment with art," he says. "I lose it all the time, and sometimes I think what I do is frivolous, trivial. Why do I bother? It's not solving the world's problems. It may not be teaching anybody about how to survive or get their next meal or informing anybody about the injustices of the world. But if it gives somebody joy to look at for a minute, or something to think about, or another way of contemplating stuff . . . "

His voice drifts off, then mounts with determination.

"Because you're black you're supposed to speak and think a certain way and be real predictable. I see the whole thing as more about humanity, not in terms of black and white camps or sexual orientation camps or issue-directed camps. It loses its humanity to me, the hard and fast positions. It loses its enchantment."*

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