K. Anthony Jones
K. Anthony Jones: I'm always within that space and I want to push those limitations, push them.
Helga Davis: It's easy to look back on a journey and make sense of it. But when you're in it, you can't always see it. I'm Helga Davis. Researcher, writer, and critic K. Anthony Jones joined me in the midst of his searching. And as he sat down full of energy, passion and curiosity, we talked about what it means to make your own way, and to make a path where one may not exist.
This is my conversation with K. Anthony Jones.
K. Anthony Jones: Hello, how are you? That's so funny, I just instantly started smiling when I saw your face.
Helga Davis: That's a nice thing.
K. Anthony Jones: It is, cuz I was like, so nervous, so many nerves and everything else under the sun. [laughs]
Helga Davis: Why?
K. Anthony Jones: Why? Oh, I always have nerves. I have nerves about everything. That’s just a part of my personality. [laughs]
Helga Davis: Okay, but why this in particular?
K. Anthony Jones: Because, I think cuz it’s conversational, and it's like, there was no way for me to prepare, and I was like, well, who am I? And I always think like, well, who am I? And sometimes I place myself as like—well, I don't necessarily understand my own voice sometimes in the world. So I always channel maybe other people's voices that I admire in the world. So it's like, so am I going to be Toni Morrison today? Or am I going to be Ursula K. Le Guin today? Or am I going to be K. Michael Hays, or anybody that I admire? So it's like, who, like, what voice am I thinking through today?
Helga Davis: You feel like you're going to be okay?
K. Anthony Jones: I think so.
Helga Davis: Yeah, cuz you are going to be okay!
So here's what happened. This time has given me, or afforded me, an opportunity—and I'm using that word now, because it has not been the word I've been using, and may not use forever— to not be on the road. To not be out in the world in the way that I am accustomed to being out in the world, meeting people, bumping into people and saying to them, you should come and talk to me.
And so one morning I got up and I was doing my meditation. And after my meditation, I was asking the question with whom should I be speaking, or with whom can I speak in this moment when I can't leave here. And where perhaps someone I would be able to speak with, I won't meet them. And so I started looking. And your face kept popping up in whatever algorithm life there is for me on Instagram.
So if I read about you—your interests are “arts and architecture theorist with secondary interests in science and technology studies. Namely, I research artists, anthropologists and scientists.” And so I read that, and I said, who is this? And, I'm curious to know who else is out there—who else is so complicatedly, wonderfully exploring the many things that they can be, their many interests, and how are they doing that?
So it doesn't seem to me that you have done these things in order to land in a spot or in a particular place. But these are indeed the things that excite you and excite your brain and have informed your path. And that for me, and for this work, is a very, very important thing. And as we begin to come out of what has been the COVID year of being inside, of not being able to see people, of not being able to travel, of not being able to, of not being able to, of not being able to… Who are we wanting to emerge as? Who are the people that have influenced you and helped you be in all of these places?
K. Anthony Jones: Oh my God, where do we start?
Helga Davis: Wherever you wish.
K. Anthony Jones: Where does this story begin? When was I tossed... I think my story starts growing up in rural South Carolina in the middle of nowhere, and not having any access to anyone except for my parents and this house. There's a house, there's a highway, and there's a cornfield across from the house. And within this house, whatever my interests were, we explored it.
So at one point in time, I wanted to be an Egyptologist. And I remember a children's book that's not really a children's book, because—it was by Aliki, Mummies in Egypt—because the language is so dense and complicated where she explains mummification in the book. And I remember at one point, like, well I want to be an archeologist, I want to be an Egyptologist. And then there was also a lot of bits and pieces where I was tangentially interested in like architecture, I remember as a child, but I had no way of accessing what architecture history was. So by this point, I had a computer. And I only had the encyclopedia, cuz we didn't have the internet, and I can only like look up this broad definition of what architectural history would be.
And then finally, I ended up going to college—I went to Morehouse for undergrad. Mainly because I needed to go to a place that had an airport. Atlanta had an airport, and that could take me to other places in the world. And that was really big, because I wanted to get out of rural South Carolina, because there was no way I was going to grow, and I was miserable as a person there.
I remember meeting with the college counselor and saying, “I want to go to the New School.” And she says, “what new school?” She had no concept that there was a place called New School University. Kids never left the low country of South Carolina. There was no way out. There's like, literally if you're there, you're either—you're impoverished. There's all kinds of issues with like, even taking the SAT if you didn't have a car. You had to go to Orangeburg, which is like maybe three to four towns over, to get to a site to take the SAT. So if you didn't have any transportation, you were limited, and you could only go to the community college.
So there were many barriers that were placed in front of you in order to even think about getting any type of mobility to leave that space or that place.
And I just remember there was something in me that was like, “I am not staying here!” But how I was able to access the world outside of rural South Carolina was through the limited magazine publications that I could find in like bookstores, or even like Walmart. And I would see what people would be doing or what type of careers people would have, and I just became extremely interested in that world. And I would like—there were people that I saw in magazines that I would later in my life literally track them down to talk to them!
Helga Davis: Tell me one person that you did that with. Who did you track down?
K. Anthony Jones: It was honestly—one person I was able to track down that I read about in Essence Magazine was Thelma Golden.
Helga Davis: You wanted to meet with her and talk to her about what?
K. Anthony Jones: Well, at that time, I wanted to be a curator [laughs]. Because this is now—jump to my junior year of college. I go to the Whitney Museum of American Art. I'm in New York, from Atlanta. I see this show curated by K. Michael Hayes about Buckminster Fuller, “Starting with the Universe.” So I get curatorial imagination out of that.
And then I changed my whole career path from wanting to be a public policy analyst to wanting to be a curator. So my junior summer, I come back to New York and I end up landing a meeting with Thelma Golden. I think the meeting was really good, but it was like, I was very nervous, and I also had an expectation of how the meeting would go, but I don't think I necessarily knew what type of questions I needed to ask, or, what was I attempting to access at that time? But I was able to work with a curator/art historian named Kelly Jones that summer as well, because as soon as I got the internet when I was in high school, I started emailing Farah Jasmine Griffin, I started emailing Robin D.G. Kelley.
Helga Davis: So you started emailing people so that you could get access to your interests, and try all these things out. But you've had so many interests in terms of possible career paths. What did your mom or your parents have to say about that to you?
K. Anthony Jones: I have an older sister and a little brother. Older sister particularly—my mom and my father were divorced by this point. And everybody had an idea about what I should be doing or where I should go to school. Cause it was like, they did not want me to leave the state [laughs]. My mom is the first intellectual that I came in contact with, was the first person who helped me navigate all of these interests that I cultivated. But I don't think she ever thought that was necessarily a career trajectory for me, in any type of way about where her kids may have possibly landed. I think my mom spent a lot of time with me more so because I was just always around her and I was always underneath her.
Helga Davis: Were your siblings as academically curious as you, or not as much? Were they happy to stay in South Carolina?
K. Anthony Jones: They were very much so happy to stay in South Carolina, but they were not willing to take risks. I think South Carolina is like the third ring of hell. It's just like...it's like nothing ever works there. You have to be so small to exist in that world. You have to give up so much, you have to be marginalized. You have to be...you have to be subordinate into the system. And It's just like, I just could not deal with that.
Helga Davis: It's such a huge thing to hate where you're from, or to recognize the limitations of where you’re from.
K. Anthony Jones: I've had to shoot out in so many directions because it seems like every single job opportunity that I had before going to graduate school, it was like, people would give me a job, but I would have this interview with them. And I would have conversations with them about my fascination with visual culture or visuality, and I would make up this narrative of what visual culture and visuality could necessarily be. But that wasn't necessarily what the job position actually entailed, so it seemed like I was always at the wrong place at the wrong time. So in a nutshell, I would always end up getting fired [laughs].
And then at some point with me, it would be like, the jobs would end, but I was actually happy that the jobs ended, because at that time it was like, well—and I would sometimes calculate, okay, if this job ends, I have x amount of time before I need to find another job. So now I have time to sneak into Avery Library at Columbia University and go through the art history books. I have time to research. I have time to figure out what I'm thinking about. I have time to write. I have time and access to things I did not have when I had to sit at a job from nine to five.
My first job actually, I had worked with an artist named Iona Rozeal Brown. But my actual first salaried position was as a producer at Art Partner, because I had become interested in photo agencies. And previously to that I was working in galleries. And then I had thought, maybe I should try photo agencies. But my intellectual idea of what a photo agency was, was completely different. Because I was looking at all of these books, and I'm thinking these people are actually reading these books in the office. No, they’re coffee table books, wrong again! [laughs]
So the first time I get fired from a job, I'm like 24 or 25. It doesn't work out, and I'm like really upset about it not working out. But then I realized like, why am I upset about things that are not working out, when it’s clearly not where I'm supposed to be? So then from there, I basically take like maybe six months to a year, and I'm like researching and researching and researching and researching.
Helga Davis: But where are you living during this time? What are you eating? How are you feeding yourself? How are you keeping a roof over your head? Because part of your story that is really of interest to me is that you have tried so many things. That you've not been afraid to get fired or to fail. And that there's a kind of resilience that I think is important.
You know, people always say to you, “well, you know, you should get a job and be secure,” but no one ever talks about how crazy it is to do something that you don't like every day. There's very little inquiry around what it does to a person to do a thing that you don't necessarily feel connected to or want to do.
And so I really want to understand these steps with you, because I think it's important for any person listening to this—and especially for Black and brown people to hear this, because we don't get this necessarily everywhere we are. We may not get it. We may not have parents who have tried to do things. We may have parents who are just able to bring us here and to feed us and to clothe us, but who can't necessarily imagine for us, or imagine a different kind of world other than the world that they occupy for us. And so I'm wanting to slow down with you and really hear all the steps along this path, because it's important.
K. Anthony Jones: So my boss tells me—I have a runway that things are not working out. So I have to start my exit plan. So I was able to secure enough money to start me to live off of that. But I also was able to apply for unemployment
Helga Davis: So you saved enough money to live off of for a year?
K. Anthony Jones: Basically, yes. [laughs]
Helga Davis: Wow.
K. Anthony Jones: That's literally the story of my life! [laughs]
Helga Davis: So the grind is on for you.
K. Anthony Jones: Yes, very much so.
Helga Davis: You don't, essentially, stop moving.
K. Anthony Jones: No, I never stop moving. Like literally from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, I'm always moving. I'm always thinking.
Helga Davis: Even now?
K. Anthony Jones: Yes! [laughs] Even now, it never stops. I may wake up at 5am and I start collecting images, because even though I'm not an art director anymore, I still like visuality. I continuously read everything. Or if I have to write an essay for someone, I'm literally sleeping in my bed writing, I’m at the gym writing. I'm always playing with ideas around narrative. I'm always thinking about what possibilities can I find myself.
Helga Davis: Okay, but where's your space of quiet? Is there quiet for you? Is there stillness for you?
K. Anthony Jones: There was only one time I had stillness or space where there was no static. I call that like static. And I was sitting in the Institute of African American Studies at Columbia University. And I was sitting in the student computer room, and there was one moment where it was literally quiet still. And then all of a sudden someone came in and asked me a question and it went away.
Helga Davis: Hm. Do you think it is in part just a relentless pursuit of pleasure that you're on, and curiosity?
K. Anthony Jones: Relentless pursuit of pleasure and curiosity, but also mastery.
Helga Davis: Hm. Say more about that.
K. Anthony Jones: Mastery. I think it was like...the first time I realized I was in love with postmodern art history was when I was at Columbia University. I was a visiting student my last semester of college at Morehouse. And this teaching assistant by the name of Dr. Tina Rivers was telling me, you should really read Hal Foster, who's an art historian at Princeton University. And she said, read Design and Crime, just read the back of the book.
So when I first read Design and Crime, and read Hal Foster, I fell in love with art history, but also his writing, his capacity to write, to think, is mastery that I don’t possess yet. For me, I think it's like, as long as I'm awake, I have to continuously try to sharpen my writing, sharpen my thinking around images, sharpen my references, reading things in multiple ways, whether it's an art history, anthropology, geography, science and technology studies—consistently always trying to stretch my brain.
Helga Davis: I mean, by now, you know a lot!
K. Anthony Jones: I don't think so.
Helga Davis: No, you don't think so.
K. Anthony Jones: No! I look forward to the age when I'm like 50.
Helga Davis: Because then what's going to happen?
K. Anthony Jones: Oh, let's see...well, actually 56. Because Toni Morrison wrote her magnum opus Beloved when she was 56, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote Always Coming Home when she was 56!
Helga Davis: Mm.
K. Anthony Jones: And I think when you're in your fifties, you understand your terrain of what you're thinking about—-how do you carve it out, how do you write it—and 21 years from now, I think I would be happy with my intellect.
Helga Davis: Mhm. So you from a very early age have been curious about many things that were driven by your desire to get away from home, because home wasn't actually big enough to hold you or to keep you or to satisfy you.
K. Anthony Jones: Yes.
Helga Davis: Hm. So then where's home?
Anthony Jones: How are you defining home?
Helga Davis: How are you defining home?
K. Anthony Jones: It became very important to have an actual residence, to like literally have a place to stay. I think for me, honestly—I actually may not have a home, I may just be transient. The most important things are the books that I take with me. [laughs]
Helga Davis: What's important to you, for me to consider, about the spaces we occupy through your lenses of history and design? And also as it pertains to women and gender and culture and African American studies, as well as the study of anyone or anything I've forgotten, that's essential to your interests? What’s important to you?
K. Anthony Jones: For me, I'm always interested in the translation of history, on disrupting history, adding bottom-up history into the master narrative of history.
You asked about design—design becomes such a porous conversation for me, because a lot of times for me, it's not about design. Sometimes it's about narrative. Sometimes it's about object-based history, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's literally about me thinking of a multiple choice puzzle of sorts, and which is the best way to execute getting marginalized voices into the mainstream. And how do I use figures like Elizabeth Catlett, an amazing African American sculptor, sculptor-draftsman—I weaponize her all the time.
Helga Davis: And she's important to you because…?
K. Anthony Jones: She's important to me because I've always had some reference to her in my whole entire life! There was this book that I got when I was a child called I Dream A World, which is a reference from a Langston Hughes poem. And I come in contact with her, but at the time when I come in contact with the book, the vocabulary in the book, I couldn't read it, but I saw this photo of her and then my mom read it to me, the narrative.
So she comes back to me when I’m at Morehouse taking art history courses, in a way that I start really critiquing the fact that she's a social realist artist, and modern art history does not deem her as modern. But the deal with art history is that how do we critique who gets to be modern and who doesn’t? Who gets to have politics and who doesn't get to have politics? Because her work is on par with what's going on in the civil rights movement in the late 20th century. She's also, she’s a woman. So she's in Mexico with the Taller de Gráfica Popular, and McCarthyism tracks her down there. And they basically try to pull her back to the United States, and she gives up her citizenship and she stays in Mexico, and she doesn't get it back until like 1983. And I think she gets a visa to come to the Studio Museum of Harlem.
But all of those things—because there are many different artists who are called—like Jackson Pollock is called a communist. But him, that makes him a rockstar. She is called a communist, and her citizenship gets snatched away. Why? So what she's depicting is not considered modern by this standard. But what is Modernism though? Cause you have all throughout the 20th century and late 20th century artists working in figuration, and they're considered modern. But why is this African American woman not modern? And everything she’s depicting is a part of the larger narrative.
I weaponize her to critique modern art history, to say that all of these categories about periodization are arbitrary and bullshit. [laughs] So, in doing so, I'm trying to bring her into the mainstream.
Helga Davis: And to lift up.
Anthony Jones: And to lift up everybody who's been oppressed by the canon. [laughs]
Helga Davis: Right, right.
Anthony Jones: Oh, I try. I may not be successful in it, but we all try.
Helga Davis: Well, we don't all try, but you try for sure.
Anthony Jones: What do you mean, we don't all try? Tell me about that.
Helga Davis: Well, we don't. I think that there are lots of folks who are quite comfortable in whatever spaces they're in, where they can be out of certain kinds of struggles, certain kinds of conversation. When I would hear people say in New York in particular that we're all suffering the effects of COVID, I would giggle every single time. It's like, no, we're not. I see lots of people who don't seem to be suffering at all, and whose lives have not changed at all, despite the fact that there are people in their city who are dying and having to work and all the other things.
So I like to think that people I know are concerned and lifting others up. And that's one of those sayings from Toni Morrison, right? That that's one of our responsibilities, is when we have power, and when we have success, that we reach back and lift someone else up. But I don't know that we all do that. I would like to think so, but I know better.
Anthony Jones: I think sometimes with me, wherever my world view is at that time, I just think maybe everybody's there with me. [laughs] But it's also taken me a long time to get to this point where I've been speaking about bottom-up history, Because at one point in time, I would have never wanted to talk about bottom-up history.
Helga Davis: Because?
Anthony Jones: Oh, it was so many things...because it was like, people will always want to marginalize me as a scholar, as a person, because it's like, you're a person of color, so you must talk about artists of color. And it was like, I can talk about anything that I want!
Helga Davis: How about that?
Anthony Jones: Why do I have to be marginalized within the locales of my body, of who I am as a person in the world? Yes, that is how I engage with the world, but I can go anywhere that I want!
Helga Davis: And had been going everywhere that you want, if only in your imagination, from the very beginning. It's a big thing for people to hear this, that we are not limited by the places and the people we are born into.
Anthony Jones: Yes, yes. But I think I just, I don't know. People were like, but you don't—not everybody has the capacity to do the things that you do, but I'm like, yes you do!
I mean, if I had to sit down and think about all of the times people have told me, “you can't do this, this is what you have to stay doing this, this is who you are...” I mean, people making so many claims on who I am as a person, where I've come from, what they think about me and all of these things...I would have never left South Carolina! So I say to hell with that.
And Helga, look where you have been able to go. Look at the capaciousness of the work that you have produced! How have you been able to say, “I'm going to do what I want?”
Helga Davis: [laughs] That's how yes, yes. I just keep saying yes.
Where are you going next?
Anthony Jones: I am going into an art history program at Binghamton University, because I need more time to formulate my ideas around art history. Because I want to be an academician, and I want to push those limitations, push them! It's very confusing to see someone like me saying the things that I say.
Helga Davis: What’s someone like you?
Anthony Jones: A Black man! A Black queer man saying the things that I'm saying. or having the interests that I have, or being capacious in my interests and intellect. I think even that, I think that's an act of resistance, and that's an act of being a revolutionary.
Helga Davis: Yeah. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. Thank you.
Anthony Jones: Thank you. I hope you got what you needed.
Helga Davis: I hope you got what you needed too.
And that was my conversation with K. Anthony Jones. I’m Helga Davis. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Give us a rating and share with a friend. And don't forget to follow me at hel.gadavis on Instagram.
Helga: The Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes-Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Special thanks to Alex Ambrose. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer. Citi and Bloomberg Philanthropies are the Armory’s 2021 season sponsors.
And now, the Coda.
And so right now, if we just sit here for a moment and not say anything and not do anything, let's actually do it. And so just take a breath, and let it out.
Anthony Jones: Are we here?
Helga Davis: Mhm. Are you here?
Anthony Jones: Yes.
Transcription Provided by: Emma Bauchner