In Conversation: Kambui Olujimi Explores The Mythic Space of Depression Era Dance Marathons in ‘All I Got to Give’

The New York based artist talks with Black Art & Design about his latest exhibition, ‘All I Got to Give,’ which takes us on a journey through the enduring spirit of historic dance marathons

Amidst the dynamic backdrop of Los Angeles’s contemporary art scene, Kambui Olujimi’s exhibition “All I Got to Give” at Vielmetter Los Angeles emerges as an exploration of resilience, history, and the human condition. This exhibition marks Olujimi’s first solo venture in Los Angeles and is the culmination of a decade-long exploration in which the artist immersed himself in the history and cultural impact of the 1920s and ’30s dance marathons.  These marathons, emerging during the Great Depression, transcended entertainment to become intense endurance contests where participants, driven by desperation and the lure of prize money in economically hard times, danced for hours, days, or even months on end.

For over a decade, Olujimi has delved into the complexities of these endurance events, unraveling their societal implications and exploring their emotional and psychological dimensions. Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, his multifaceted approach, encompassing painting, sculpture, photography, and video, has allowed him to capture the essence of these forgotten narratives with a unique perspective. His journey through the past decade has been one of continuous discovery and artistic evolution, leading to a deeper understanding of these historical events and their relevance to contemporary themes.

In “All I Got to Give,” Kambui transcends the boundaries of time and space, creating a mythic realm where the past and present converge. Through his art, he invites viewers to contemplate the complexities of human interactions, the strength found in community, and the enduring power of the human spirit in the face of adversity. This exhibition is not just a display of Olujimi’s artistic prowess but a testament to his profound ability to connect historical events with contemporary themes, making him a significant voice in today’s art world.

Christopher Okereke-Cox: All I Got to Give explores the historic dance marathons of the ’20s and ’30s. What drew you to this particular moment in history?

Kambui Olujimi: I was first introduced to this phenomenon by my mother. I would hear her describe them and they lived in a place of myth: half real, half hyperbole. Later research would prove that the tales were not nearly as wild as the truth. Then, in 2008, I watched the film, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” which is based on these Depression-era dance marathons. For the next three years, this cinematic classic would haunt my thoughts.

Christopher: In your pieces, there’s a palpable sense of interdependence between the figures. Could you elaborate on how the concepts of touch and embrace inform your artistic expression and the narratives within your paintings?

Kambui: After the global pandemic, I think we all realized how crucial touch is to our well-being. Touch is an energetic connection to our community and reaffirms our own corporal integrity. It’s one of the ways we express ourselves and our emotions, whether it’s a hug to say hello or a highly evolved victory celebration. The only way to complete a dance marathon was to rely on your partner. That actual embrace would create the support for contestants to rest. Literally, endurance is a communal process.

Christopher: The dance marathons you depict were segregated and reflective of societal struggles. How do you approach representing such a complex part of history?

Kambui: Dance marathons from the Depression-era were vehemently segregated, as the rest of American society was at the time. My presence in this inquiry immediately interrupts the racial divide. While I acknowledge the segregated intent of the original dance marathons, I was most interested in their mythic space—how each contest created a platform of individual narratives and allowed contestants to recreate themselves outside of their familial or local history.

Christopher: Your work is known for challenging established modes of thinking. How do you hope your reinterpretation of dance marathons will shift viewers’ perceptions of American history?

Kambui: I’m not sure that “All I Got to Give” or any of the past work I’ve made on this subject is intended to shift the historical perception of dance marathons. But I have found, even in this space that was not intended for me—in fact, actually designed to exclude me—questions that are pertinent to my life and the time that I live in today.

Christopher: This is your debut solo show in Los Angeles. LA has a unique cultural energy and the art spaces in the city are known for presenting forward-looking work. How does this environment resonate with you?

Kambui: Los Angeles is a space of extraordinary creativity. While I’ve been to LA several times and have friends and family here, I’m still learning and understanding all it has to offer. I have been wondered by the Museum of Jurassic Technology, grown addicted to Arcana arts bookstore and found a new haunt in Sam First.

Christopher: With “All I Got to Give” currently on display in Los Angeles, you also have “The Lost Rivers Dream Index, Volume 3” presenting in Paris. Could you share some insights into the Paris exhibition and how it dialogues with your broader body of work?

Kambui: The Lost Rivers Dream Index, Volume 3 is currently on view at Galerie Cécile Fakhoury in Paris. The work looks to enter another vernacular mythic space: that of dream interpretation books. For this project, I’ve written the third edition of my own index. The exhibition features twelve paintings that move the way of dreams-in and out of legibility.