Jefferson Pinder

For socially conscious art that’s accessible, provocative, and relevant. Essay by Troy Patterson

Some performance artists just create head-scratching riddles, but Jefferson Pinder gets beneath viewers’ skin and opens minds. His most powerful videos and mixed-media pieces explore the genre’s power to address race and identity with visceral immediacy.

The 42-year-old Washington, D.C., native is currently putting together one of his most rousing pieces yet. Commissioned by the Birmingham Museum of Art, Belly of the Beast is inspired by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls 50 years ago this month. “I was trying to figure out how to create a piece relevant to the bombing,” Pinder says.

The site-specific piece gathers his career-defining interests and draws deeply on local talent to discuss a metaphorically rich subject—“how two different experiences can happen at one location.” Pinder will reconfigure Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre—a vaudeville house-turned-movie palace—as a site for reenacting cultural battles. When the Lyric closed its doors in 1958, it was the only theater in Birmingham where blacks could watch a performance at the same time as whites—albeit from a segregated balcony.

Revisiting the Jim Crow era and recharging the energy of the space, Belly of the Beast will place a black gospel choir in the balcony and white bluegrass choir in the orchestra pit. “Both of those styles of music are completely about passion and devotion,” Pinder says, “and we try to draw together the distinct qualities of each of them and create new sounds. But no way is this going to be a concert.” Instead, it’s an immersive study in harmony and dissonance, with dramatic conflict taking the form of musical sparring. “It’s almost like a duel,” the artist continues. Influences range from Sacred Harp to the contemporary pop chart: “What would it sound like if a bluegrass group could re-interpret Kanye West?”

Pinder’s artistic process led to an unprecedented cross-pollination. “Even within the gospel community, these choirs don’t regularly get chances to sing with each other.” The beauty of this Beast—and of Jefferson Pinder’s work in general—lies in its ability to provoke meaningful dialogue.

Patterson is the writer-at-large for Slate.com. He has written about books, television, and the arts for The New York Times Book Review, GQ, and Entertainment Weekly.