Meet Inside Outside, Upside Down Artist Kokayi

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Grammy-nominated multidisciplinary artist Kokayi, whose photography is in the Phillips 100th anniversary Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down.

Kokayi photographed by Lexey Swall, Courtesy of the artist

“No, you’re going to take the pictures.” That’s what Kokayi’s wife said to him back in 2019 when he considered searching for a photographer to create the visuals alongside the record he was working on, “HUBRI$,” as a Halcyon Fellow. He hesitated to consider himself a “photographer” at the time. In his fellowship proposal for the project, he wrote that he would be hiring a photographer to shoot the visuals.

Photo from “HUBRI$” visuals, Courtesy of the artist

Anytime he’s gone on tour, he’s taken photos with intent, looking to document and capture a moment. Yet, the imposter syndrome he felt about being the photographer for his own project crept up.

“When you’re around a bunch of artists who you know are at the top of their field, that’s the other intimidating part,” said Kokayi, who has always been surrounded by circles of creatives including folks with great eyes working in photography and videography.

After expressing feelings of discomfort around shooting the visuals for his work, his photographer friends were the ones to push him, suggesting he needed to just pick up the camera and holler at them when he was ready to get into it. And he did, he picked up the camera and learned along the way. It wasn’t the start of something new, but a recognition of something always there, just waiting to be developed.

From childhood, Kokayi’s interests spanned a wide range of artistic practices from graffiti to music-making. He attributes some of this initial exploration and multi-faceted approach to the hip hop culture he grew up in.

“Hip hop culture started out multi-faceted. There were a multitude of kids that breakdanced, did graffiti, DJed, beatboxed. You know everything—the fashion and style, they did all the stuff. It wasn’t like you did one thing. You weren’t a monolith,” said Kokayi. “Black people aren’t monoliths. Hip hop isn’t monolithic. People aren’t monolithic, but you know they try to paint us, especially as a Black person, try to paint me into a corner based on my pedigree.”

Photo from “HUBRI$” visuals, Courtesy of the artist

The artist reminds the youth he works with as a mentor not to allow others to dictate how they express themselves. He finds himself reminding adults about this too.

A man once expressed that he didn’t have any musical talent to Kokayi as they waited in an airport, and he responded with “Yes, you do. When you were a kid (and this is what I tell the classes), when you were a kid, you would make up songs. You would make up songs and plays and poetry and all kinds of things just expressing yourself artistically. And the time that you stopped is when somebody told you you weren’t good. That’s when you quit.”

Kokayi doesn’t quit. He keeps learning whether it be through a book, sweat equity, or his practice. He continues to develop what’s always been there even if that practice or craft hasn’t been as deeply explored as some of his others. So when his friend called to ask if he could come take pictures of her beauty shop before she closed the doors for the last time, he was there.

His friend built the shop from the ground up, doing the interior design work piece by piece, and paying for it all through her labors as a hairstylist doing heads in her home. He watched her open the shop. Now, he photographs her closing the shop.

Kokayi, When Letting Go is Love, 2020, Photograph, Giclee Print, Courtesy of the artist

“It was tearing me up to even clip the thing,” Kokayi said in reference to taking the photos. The candid he took of her looking out the window in her final moments with the shop, When Letting Go is Love, is one he debated submitting to the call for Inside Outside, Upside Down.

He asked himself if this was trauma porn or an exploitation of his homies’ sadness. He knew the weight of that day and ultimately, decided to be very intentional to share a true narrative in the statement for the piece.

While her glance out the window might be interpreted as somber, her composure is held as she sits upright and out of focus. “For me what made sense is it’s out of focus like she’s out of focus right now,” said Kokayi.

So many, especially Black women and folks of other marginalized identities, tackled an onslaught of extrapolated inequities with the pandemic. He captured a moment that so many felt and lived. Perhaps not a resilience, but an endurance.

The Nicholson Project recently announced Kokayi as one of their upcoming fellows for 2022, and his book, You are Ketchup: And Other Things Known by a Career Musician, comes out in March of 2022.

Meet Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Mojdeh Rezaeipour

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Mojdeh Rezaeipour about her video work in The Phillips Collection’s 100th anniversary Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down.

Still from watching time watching god, Courtesy of the artist

Mojdeh Rezaeipour’s video felt momentarily complete for the first time as she viewed it at the opening of Inside Outside, Upside Down at the Phillips with former neighbors, who are now dear friends.

“We were all able to witness it together,” said Mojdeh.

Mojdeh’s meditative video, watching time watching god, documents the way time passes. She tracks light moving across the wall and the moon in the sky. Using projection mapping, she captures what’s happening outside the window and projects it onto a different surface of the house, making an imprint. She describes it as having a conversation with the house.

Behind the scenes of capturing the footage of watching time watching god, Courtesy of the artist

“For me, it felt like I’m telling the wall something—about what another part of the house experienced.” These aren’t the conversations she imagined having at the beginning of 2020.

As a resident artist at The Nicholson Project, Mojdeh proposed an on-site activation, allowing her to get to know her new neighbors in Southeast DC. Conscious of her positionality as a non-Black person of color applying to a residency in a quickly gentrifying DC, she sought to learn from community members in the predominantly Black area. “I wanted to somehow make my work a container for what was already there instead of just bringing my work there.”

Just as the city went into lockdown in March 2020, Mojdeh began The Nicholson Project’s Artist Residency Program. The residency welcomes artists from all creative disciplines who are especially interested in the role that art and design can play in strengthening the community to reside there for three months. As Mojdeh moved in, the world around her was closing down. A common occurrence for us all over the past 18 months, she found herself struggling to meet people. From scheduling Zoom teas to trying to make eye contact with folks on the street, she did all she could to connect.

Then, she found an unlikely answer through a different kind of connection right in front of her.

watching time watching god, 2020, Video, Courtesy of the artist, on view in Inside Outside, Upside Down

“It’s like—oh, okay, while I’m trying to have conversations with my neighbors, I’m also having a conversation with the house,” said Mojdeh. “The house is the most accessible entity with whom to have a conversation.”

As she bore witness to time passing in and around the house, the constant sounds served as a soundtrack of her time there and also the audio for the video. The typical sounds of a DC neighborhood—birds chirping, dogs barking, and helicopters overhead—serve as a steady hum throughout the piece. But it’s the ambulance sirens that might catch a listener by surprise. The home for the residency sits next to a highway that leads to a hospital. “The ambulance sirens were a reminder of the massive collective grief that we’re needing to process,” Mojdeh said.

After the police murder of George Floyd and the following uprisings and protests, she felt pretty clearly that this was not the time for her to have an exhibition. She held onto the work and shared the footage with a handful of neighbors who had become her good friends.

Rezaeipour with friends and fellow artist Nekisha Durrett at the opening of Inside Outside, Upside Down, Courtesy of the artist (Left to right: Nekisha Durrett , John, Seth, Mojdeh Rezaeipour, Gayle, and Kendall)

These same friends were able to join her at the opening of Inside Outside, Upside Down, the first public showing of the piece. “The work that we make is just as much about what is not visible as what is visible. And what is not visible but lives at the heart of the work I made in this exhibition are these relationships.”

Mojdeh continues to build relationships as she tackles a new research-based project centered on ancient pottery fragments originating in over 30 different sites across the Middle East. The project builds toward a collective project informed by conversations with artists and humans with lineages across all of the sites.

May we keep in mind the presence of those who might be physically absent.

Meet Inside Outside, Upside Down Artist Dominick Cocozza

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Dominick Cocozza, the youngest artist in the Phillips 100th anniversary Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down.

Dominick Cocozza alongside his piece, COVID-19 Self Portrait, at the Inside Outside, Upside Down opening, Courtesy of the artist

At 19 years-old, Dominick Cocozza has a very impressive curriculum vitae. He’s exhibited work in the U.S. Capitol, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and most recently in Inside Outside, Upside Down with the piece COVID-19 Self Portrait, a larger than life charcoal drawing with Dominick wearing a mask as he participates in fall festivities at a pumpkin patch.

“I think self-portraits represent a stamp in time and it’s still a very pivotal moment in our history,” said Dominick.

This isn’t the first time Dominick’s work has been very timely. The artist is very adept at responding to the world around him.

He gained early recognition and a national platform in 2019 when his piece Immigration, featuring two children holding a sign that reads “Bring Our Mom Back,” was selected as one of the winners of the Congressional Art Competition. The nationwide visual art competition is sponsored by the Congressional Institute to recognize and encourage artistic talent in the nation and each congressional district.

Dominick Cocozza, Immigration, 2019, Acrylic and ink on paper, Courtesy of the artist

Dominick was not new to art competitions. He competed in them from the time his parents began to recognize his talents in elementary school. However, this was the first time his work was up for critique in front of a national audience, and at a moment with heightened media attention on the U.S.-Mexico border crisis as political debates raged on.

“This was the first time I got critiques and maybe not so nice messages from other people. But I think through all of that, I’m so grateful for that experience because it got me more equipped,” said Cocozza. “If this is something I want to enter in the real world, and I want to explore these concepts, then that’s just how our community is at this point of time and that’s just what art is—art is great when it sparks conversation.”

While Dominick is a veteran of competitions consisting of folks in his age cohort, Inside Outside, Upside Down was his first time having his work selected for a juried exhibition where he would be in conversation with more established artists. It wasn’t until reading the press release for the exhibition that he realized he was the 19-year-old in the show mentioned as the youngest artist.

“I felt really humbled to be a part of a community of really amazing artists in the DC metropolitan area that I look up to,” Cocozza said.

The emerging artist is still paving his own way, exploring different concepts as he starts his second year at the Rhode Island School of Design this fall. More personal work around his identities as a Guatemalan-American adoptee are still in flux.

Dominick alongside his piece, Fractured Embrace, 2021, Charcoal on paper, Courtesy of the artist

Dominick said, “I think that part of my art making is being able to make sure that I’m promoting more inclusive themes throughout my work where I’m representing my community in a light that I feel isn’t being represented at all.”

As Dominick contemplates his own identities in his work, he encourages other young emerging artists to remain true to themselves in the midst of the highs and lows.

“Know your self worth and be able to harness that,” said Dominick.