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Philly artist starts a high-profile residency at Harlem’s Studio Museum this week

The 29-year-old artist E. Jane is also known on the club scene for appearances as MHYSA, an alter ego.

E. Jane
E. JaneRead morePieter Kers

Philadelphia artist E. Jane had thought for quite a while, with both longing and reluctance, about pursuing the prestigious residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“For a long time, I didn’t even apply because I didn’t feel like I could do it,” the 29-year-old artist said recently. “Then I went to Europe last year, I had a solo show in Scotland, and I came back and just felt like it [was time] and it still feels crazy to actually get it. You’re supposed to apply, but getting it is very different, for sure!”

The announcement that it would actually happen came in July, when the Studio Museum selected E. Jane as one of its next group of residents. The residency starts Thursday.

The Studio Museum program boasts a potent lineage.

In 1969, sculptor, printmaker, writer, and teacher Valerie Maynard became the first artist to spend a year supported and mentored by the museum. Since then, three artists a year have been selected, usually early in their careers. Many have gone on to considerable acclaim like Sanford Biggers, David Hammons, James Dupree, Alison Saar, Charles Burwell, Kerry James Marshall, and Nari Ward. In all, more than 125 artists have participated in the residency.

Along with E. Jane, the cohort this year also includes 27-year-old performance artist Elliot Reed. who works in Los Angeles, and Brooklyn-based painter Naudline Pierre, 30.

“Our three artists in residence for 2019–20 are all on the cutting edge, expanding the canon and showing us what’s possible in art today, and even giving us a glimpse of what art might be tomorrow" said Legacy Russell, the museum’s associate curator of exhibitions.

E. Jane, who received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in interdisciplinary art in 2016, and now lives in West Philadelphia, works in performance — often digitally, on the internet — but the performance doesn’t necessarily include E. Jane, per se.

The artist’s recordings, videos, and club gigs largely feature an alter-ego, MHYSA, who’s a kind of retro chanteuse — a soft, sultry, tough, fragile singer straight out of the ’90s world of R&B music videos. E. Jane describes MHYSA as “an underground pop star for the cyber resistance.”

“It’s kind of crazy,” said E. Jane. “She played festivals in Europe. She played in Mexico. It was really insane, like a huge crowd came out in Mexico.”

Beyond the club scene, MHYSA appears in many E. Jane artworks that incorporate video.

MHYSA’s debut album, fantasii, was released on Halcyon Veil in 2017. Many of the songs, as the artist describes them, are presented as black or femme fantasies, showing a protagonist "wanting to be vulnerable, to be loved, wanting to fight, to be glorious, to have power, and to own their body and sexuality.”

MHYSA is clearly more than a performing alter-ego. She is a vessel to fill with different parts of E. Jane’s own artistic intellect and then, stepping back, to explore from a place outside MHYSA’s personality. (The artist uses they/them pronouns; their creations may be gendered.) All is generally mediated by some kind of digital technology – such as computer-modified or synth-driven sound or manipulated video — and often the work is supplemented by written texts or thoughts existing online as cyber commentaries.

E. Jane also has a new chapbook, Deluxe Dreams, from the publishing arm of the community arts group Home School in Portland, Ore., that includes many of these writings, as well as E. Jane digital collages, MHYSA song lyrics, and a variety of bristling social media postings.

These “projects,” as E. Jane calls them, are not necessarily explorations of individual personality or identity. As they wrote in a 2015 manifesto, NOPE:

“I am not grappling with notions of identity and representation in my art. I’m grappling with safety and futurity. We are beyond asking should we be in the room. We are in the room. We are also dying at a rapid pace and need a sustainable future….

"I reject the colonial gaze as the primary gaze. I am outside of it in the land of NOPE.”

E. Jane creates the text, digital images, video, performances, soundscapes, sculpture, textile, and installation works that may or may not include MHYSA, setting aside the alter-ego in works like Alive (Not Yet Dead), in which the artist grapples directly with news of the death of activist Sandra Bland.

Bland had been found hanged in a Texas cell in 2015 following a traffic arrest. Alive (Not Yet Dead) incorporates into an installation selfies taken by black women. “The project aims to defy the narrative of Black women and femmes as only dead and dying at the hands of the police by focusing on the women who are still here, still alive, still resisting,” E. Jane noted.

The performance project SCRAAATCH, which features E. Jane and their partner, the sound sculptor chukwumaa, a fellow artist from Penn, has its own performance life. The sound is highly modified by computer technology and runs from hints of noise to a dreamy smokiness.

“It’s always just all happening,” says E. Jane, speaking of their multiple projects and alter egos. “They fit with each other and then they don’t. They slip in and out of each other.”

That will become evident as E. Jane takes up the principal project for the Studio Museum residency — amplifying and elaborating elements of an evocative and metastasizing installation called Lavendra. This installation, consisting of video sculptures featuring MHYSA performing as various black ‘90s divas — think Aaliyah, Brandy, Toni Braxton — has been evolving since the artist left Penn.

It was shown most recently at the American Medium gallery in New York in 2017 and in Glasgow in 2018.

Lavendra features video sculptures with MHYSA subbed in for various divas and presented in emotive landscapes forming video collages. The divas also appear on silk digital prints, and the installation is washed in a hazy, purply light. Lavendra has a discombobulating aura, existing somewhere between nostalgia, celebration, and selfie.

In all there are 28 videos that E. Jane must complete. Three are done so far. The Studio Museum beckons.

“My work does a lot with black culture and honors black culture and holds up black culture,” E. Jane said. “Inside of that it attempts to maintain futurity and the future. And safety, because all of us are not safe. Even if I can sit in Philadelphia and feel safe, it’s not safe in Mississippi. Even North Philly’s not safe. … Even if I get the privilege of going to Penn and all that stuff, that is a thing to be concerned about. I care about what’s happening.”