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Wexner Center Artist Residency Award Given to Dr. Mark Lomax II

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by Richard Sanford on June 13, 2018

The Wexner Center for the Arts selected possibly Columbus’ finest working composer, Dr. Mark Lomax II, for its 2018-19 Artist Residency Award. Lomax is one of five artists and the only performing artist chosen for this prestigious honor in this round.

In the Wexner Center press release, Director Sherri Geldin notes, “From the very inception of the Wex nearly 30 years ago, a generous Artist Residency Award program has been at the core of our mission. This sustained commitment to artistic exploration and practice permeates the very ethos of the institution across all creative disciplines and has spawned remarkable work over the years.”

The list of past recipients bears Geldin’s words out. Lomax joins an august body of artists who have changed the culture: theatre artists like Young Jean Lee and Improbable; choreographers like Bebe Miller, Bill T. Jones, and Twyla Tharp; filmmakers like Julie Dash, Jennifer Reeder, and Sadie Benning; visual artists like Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, and Shirin Neshat. And that’s just scratching the surface. When I spoke with Lomax, he said, “I’m humbled. I haven’t even thought about what implications this could have.”

This award supports Lomax’s 400: An Afrikan Epic. The Wexner press release calls this panoramic work, “For this ambitious 12-album project, Lomax focuses on the story of black America over the 400 years between the start of the transatlantic slave trade and today, but delves further back into precolonial African history and pushes beyond the present with an Afrofuturist vision of community strength and union.”

Lomax’s own website says, “The year 1619 marks the widely regarded beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade and the first time in world history where human beings were legally treated as common chattel. From then until 1865 the American legal system regarded imprisoned descendants of Africa as less than human, and upon the legal end of federally sanctioned trafficking of human life, the humanity of Africans in America was much in question.”

I asked Lomax why he tackled a work of this scope now, to coincide with 400 years of the ma’afa (the terrible occurrence). He replied, “It’s been the core inspiration of my work. The first record my first band, Blacklist, released – the second we recorded – was called Tales From the Black Experience. In fact, (that record) is on its 20th anniversary and I’m rearranging it for a quartet as part of this piece. The quadricentennial felt like a good time to work with [the subject matter] directly.”

400’s scope isn’t just chronological and thematic. Lomax told me, “Over the 12 albums, there are six ensembles. Everything from Ogún Meji, my duo with Eddie Bayard, to a full orchestra. I’m working with an African drumming ensemble based in Atlanta named Ngoma Lungundu which means ‘the drum that thunders.’ For the orchestra, I’m working with the Greater Columbus Community Orchestra, led by Olev Viro. Four Women, for a cello quartet, is being performed by the local ensemble Ucelli; they’re premiering it at the Pizzuti Collection, July 5.

Tying the piece to the award, Lomax said, “I was going to do this anyway. But I would have done it like my other recent projects – put it out on the internet and move onto the next one. Like Prince, I always want to be focused on what’s next. But Lane [Czaplinski, performing arts curator of the Wexner Center] made me think it could be more substantive. The support of the center is what’s going to allow this piece to go beyond Central Ohio. I’m also working with Dr. Melanie Crump on a curriculum; working up a 90-minute suite extract I can take on a concert-lecture tour.”

He continued, “I wanted to tell this story from a position of strength. That meant starting before the beginning of the intercontinental slave trade. And I wanted the story to be about optimized human potential, so we need the future. I don’t believe in deficit thinking: that for me to succeed you have to suffer. The Earth can’t heal until this is healed.”

“I’d been reading and thinking a lot about institutionalized oppression. The psychological toll of people internalizing negativity about themselves includes those thoughts turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. But psychologists say the way to begin to overcome that is a strength-based empowerment narrative. I saw it for myself working with the Boys and Girls Club. These kids who grew up like I did, in Linden, or the Near Eastside, or the South Side, came in branded as ‘bad kids.’ And I saw some of them turn into the best kids I worked with. I watched them change through improved self-image and knowing someone believed.”

“I feel like, in the West, at least, art has lost touch with one of its core functions: to remind us of our humanity. I want this to be an outreach to the community and maybe a reminder to my fellow artists of the part we play.“

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