Jameel Amman uses virtual reality to build Afrofuturist worlds

Joel Oliphint
From Jameel Amman's virtual reality piece "Congo Square"

One night during the spring of Jameel Amman’s senior year at Xavier University of Louisiana in his family’s hometown of New Orleans, Amman caught a ride home with one of his closest friends. The two sat in the car and talked about their future plans for more than two hours, parked around the corner from Amman’s grandmother’s house. At the time, Amman planned to take “a year of discernment” after graduation before becoming a monk.

Then, out of nowhere, Amman said a police car pulled up and aimed a blinding light into their car. “[The officer] gets out of the car and immediately starts hurling profanities at us, so I put my hands on the dashboard and my friend does the same,” Amman said. “He comes to the car and continues shouting at us, at this point with a gun in my face. The car door was unlocked and the window was down, so he takes one of his hands and opens the door from the inside, kicks me out, puts my hands behind my back and cuffs them, and literally shoves my knees into the ground and my face into the door.”

Amman said the officer placed gun to his head and then searched the car, claiming that he would find marijuana and arrest them. As the events unfolded, Amman became convinced he was going to be killed, so in his head he began reciting the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “I started to say that to myself to try to calm myself down, and also thinking, ‘If this is the moment that I die, at least I'll be killed praying,’” Amman said.

Later, while working on his MFA at Ohio State, Amman thought more and more about the repetition of that prayer and the ritualistic nature of it. At the same time, Colin Kaepernick was in the news for protesting the national anthem. “When you're at a sporting event, oftentimes you're asked to stand up and turn towards the flag, and I was thinking about how the experience of being Black in America is the total antithesis of that sign of respect,” said Amman, who explored those ideas in a 2019 exhibition at OSU’s Hopkins Hall titled “Liturgy of the Eucharist.”

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In the gallery, Amman placed American flags on the ground so that viewers would have to look down, and once they did, they would see that the flags were covered in repeated lines of white text, which juxtaposed the Jesus Prayer with lyrics from J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar (“I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again”) and The Invisible Man (“I am an invisible man... because people refuse to see me”).

Amman reprised the flags for his most recent project, “Congo Square,” a virtual reality exhibition that required viewers to remove their shoes or wear special slippers before walking across the flags and putting on the VR headset. Inside the world of “Congo Square,” named for the open area in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans where enslaved people would gather to sing and dance, viewers are immersed in a visual album that incorporates samples of jazz musicians. The soundtrack changes based on the different areas of “Congo Square,” which features digital sculptures with titles like “Black Christ” and “Sankofa.”

“I wanted for this work to be an Afrocentric creation and transport the viewer into these different alien, spiritual worlds, which is kind of utopic,” said Amman, who will present a TED talk, “Afrofuturism as a practice of radical self-love,“ at TEDxKingLincolnBronzeville on Friday, Oct 23. “I'm trying to convey an understanding of Afrofuturism as a practice of loving oneself as a Black person — from the core of yourself to the fullest expression of oneself. … I’m responding to anti-Black violence through the lens of Western oil painting, which is a visual language that begins with the premise of whiteness as human-ness. Our value system is very much bound up in this premise, and I'm trying to shift the locus of one's being from white-centered to Black-centered.”

Amman’s circuitous journey from aspiring monk to virtual reality artist began in childhood, as an “academic brat” who moved often while steeped in the worlds of both Roman Catholicism and the Baptist church. He trained as a traditional oil painter, and at Ohio State, in 2017, he began focusing on portraiture and figure while exploring liberation theology through three visual art movements: Catholic iconography, Dutch baroque painting and French naturalism.

Over time, though, he struggled to make peace with competing concepts in the work. “I was wrestling with the contradictions of humanism and its role in defining the human person within this white supremacist and capitalist history,” he said. “I started to feel like making work that was trying to affirm Black life and Black people was like trying to run a Linux program on a Mac computer. It was just completely incompatible from the outset.”

In his second year at Ohio State, Amman began looking for ways to incorporate a more Afrocentric approach to his art, which coincided with some classes at OSU's Advanced Computing Center for Arts and Design (ACCAD), introducing him to 3D modeling and virtual reality. “I was moving from the pictorial aspect of liberation theology and trying to make a liturgical space that activated liberation theology,” Amman said. “So I went from painting to installation at the same time that I was just following my bliss and my joy by indulging my nerdiness with virtual reality.”

Amman graduated in May, and he’s headed to Colorado College for a visiting professorship, but before leaving he received a “Big Ideas” grant from GCAC. “I'm hoping to collaborate with several artists in town to make either a performance or a mixed reality installation somewhere in the city,” said Amman. Whenever the project is unveiled, you can likely expect two things: VR and hip-hop. “Ultimately," he said, "I wound up adopting virtual reality as a way of grounding my understanding of Afrofuturism within my lived experience with hip-hop music.”

From Amman's 2019 exhibition "Liturgy of the Eucharist"