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The United Colors of America

Contribute to William Pope.L's Black Factory this Saturday at the Contemporary


The crawl on the homepage of William Pope.L's touring performance-art truck reads, "The Black Factory contends that blackness is limited not by race but by our courage to imagine it differently." Strong words, indeed -- but what do they mean?

The Black Factory (BF) is constructed in a panel truck that tours the nation and repackages objects and ideas that represent blackness to the public at large. In other words, people gather at the Factory's local parking spot equipped with the things that represent blackness to them, and the BF workers use these items to challenge the audience's ideas about black and white America through a series of skits and the on-the-spot, interactive installation art. The goal is to open discussion between people (regardless of race -- remember, that's not what limits blackness) about their differences and show the change they can affect through these differences. The whole enterprise is governed by CEO and artist Pope.L and his three-person crew, who present performance pieces decked out in official yellow T-shirts and purple gloves.

So what kinds of things are we talking about? What are people bringing to the BF? Breezing through the online archive, there are several disparate items to sift through: a Duke Ellington 78; an old Porsche poster featuring a black panther lying on top of the car; some wooden fish sold mostly by black children to Caribbean tourists in Santa Marta; and a single-shoed bum (exhibited by the donor himself) -- he says most bums he sees are represented by African Americans. That's a conversation starter.

The donated items have been collected while the BF has toured the United States for more than a year, and they reflect the different visions of African-American culture, both real and imagined, from each region the BF visits. Artifacts are tagged and photographed as though the Factory was populated by purple-gloved archeologists. Some objects are repackaged into "products," with the idea that African-American culture, like all things American, is easier to discuss once it's commercially co-opted and turned into a commodity. Building on that idea, the BF's gift shop also offers "Twice-Sold" Products -- canned goods like corn, evaporated milk and so on -- that bear Pope.L's autograph, an official BF sticker, certificate of authenticity and prices jacked upwards of $250. The proceeds from all of these goods go to local charities (in St. Louis the money goes to Places for People, a nonprofit that helps adults who have mental illnesses).

All this begs the question of what St. Louis, a city that sadly and silently acknowledges its cultural medians, can add to the warehouse of blackness. A photo of Hall of Fame pitcher "Satchel" Paige in his rocking chair? A Miles Davis record? A can of Nelly's Pimp Juice? Surely, but it's just as certain we can be more creative.

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