Onyedika Chuke’s ongoing project The Forever Museum Archive (2011-present) utilizes sculpture as an archival form of investigation, orphaning, and rehoming mythological, religious, and historical visual markers to expose the less visible, but often deeper, psychological meanings that they shroud.
For this latest iteration, Chuke turns his focus to the criminal justice system in the United States—circling the present penal code back to antiquity, through the Renaissance and onto the colonial birth of American incarceration. Co-commissioned by LMCC and Pioneer Works, The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE places Chuke’s newly created sculptures alongside collected artworks and artifacts within a labyrinth of Quaker church pews and plastic tubes that pump a solution of liquid soap throughout the installation space. Taken as a whole, the objects on display point towards the interconnectedness of the seemingly disparate chapters that have culminated in our contemporary mode of governance.
The pews point towards the Christian movement’s involvement in establishing the first institution for the punishment of criminals in the United States, while a Renaissance painting—originally commissioned as a tool to organize and propagate around a singular belief system and said to have been removed from a church that was demolished to make way for Rome’s largest prison—further draws attention to the ways in which patronage, capital and religion intersects with the carceral system. Chuke’s hand-sculpted works replicate the decapitated head and dismembered feet, respectively, of Greco-Roman deities Hercules and Hermes, as a way of subverting the mythologized notion of heroism in Euro-American philosophy. Another sculpture, molded to resemble the human body’s thoracic spine, becomes the point of origin for the liquid soap that circulates throughout the installation. This commercial cleaning product is in fact produced by Corcraft Industries—the “brand name” for New York State’s Division of Correctional Industries, which currently employees approximately 2,100 incarcerated individuals at a starting wage of sixteen cents per hour. Used by the artist as a critique on the exploitation of prison labor, the network of tubes and soap, conceptually modelled after our central nervous system, snakes through the installation space to evoke the insidiousness and never-ending cycles of oppression and injustice.
The installation is inspired in large part by Chuke’s research on Rikers Island as a New York City Public Artist-in-Residence from 2018 through 2019. During this time, he collaborated with incarcerated individuals who faced extreme challenges, to create access to art and open dialogue between New York City policymakers and those in custody. Additionally, he utilized the Department of Corrections’ archives to research the architecture and historical landscape that have shaped the city’s penological system. For this presentation at The Arts Center on Governors Island, Chuke has also collaborated on the production of new works with two graduates from Young New Yorkers, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing arts-based diversion programs to court-involved young people.
About the Artist
Onyedika Chuke is a New York-based American sculptor and archivist born in Onitsha, Nigeria. Often intrigued by international politics, his analysis of history and media are pertinent reminders of social constructs that characterize our collective memory. From 2016 to 2018 Chuke was a fellow at The Drawing Center. In the years 2013 to 2015 he participated in Queens Museum Studio Program. From January 2018 to 2019, Chuke served as New York City Public Artist in Residence (P.A.I.R). The position placed him in the offices of Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and Department of Corrections (DOC) Rikers Island. He has also held fellowships at Sculpture Center, Socrates Sculpture Park and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. His archive has received support from organizations such as The Artist Alliance Inc and The American Academy in Rome. Chuke is a graduate of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (2011).
This exhibition is supported, in part, by the Art for Justice Fund, the ForGood Fund, Foster Pride, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and Young New Yorkers.