Houston-based artist Jamal Cyrus (b. 1973) produces revisionist approaches of American history in his work through the appropriation and subsequent reinterpretation of racially charged political paraphernalia and cultural objects. In particular, Cyrus’s work focuses on the formulation of African American identity through cultural and political movements, such as the Jazz Age of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and its consequent appropriation by mainstream culture. In his performances, sculptures, drawings, and collages, Cyrus creates his own alternative account of African American history, causing the viewer to acknowledge the subjectivity of interpreting past events.
Presented on the High Line, Jamal Cyrus’s Texas Fried Tenor (2012) will create a dynamic, sensorial, and eclectic soundscape as Cyrus deep-fries a saxophone while reciting a poem based on the Texas tenor saxophone tradition. Though the symphony of the sizzling brass instrument mimics the improvisatory nature of blues and jazz music, the sound produced and magnified through microphones is quite alien. His choice to deep-fry the instrument also recalls the southern stereotype of a cuisine defined by fried foods.
This performance is part of a larger series by Cyrus, Learning to Work the Saxophone, which takes its name from the refrain of the Steely Dan song “Deacon Blues.” After listening to the song one thousand times on a road trip from Philadelphia to Houston, Cyrus became interested in the importance of the saxophone in American music, especially blues and jazz which are celebrated as America’s defining musical forms and yet originated from the African American community. In this context, the saxophone is not solely an instrument of artistic expression, but also one of cultural and political significance.
Photos by Liz Ligon.