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Mendi + Keith Obadike

Mendi + Keith Obadike

American, each born 1973

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art, and literature that both use and critique digital tools. They have exhibited and performed at the New Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Museum of Modern Art, all in New York, NY. Their honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in New Media Art; a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction; and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Biennial Competition Award.

See more of Mendi + Keith Obadike's work at their website: blacksoundart.com.

What happens when humans get reduced to a small bit of data? It might be our race. How does race get codified? How does gender get codified? How does a body enter a database?

Keith Obadike

Mendi + Keith Obadike (American, each born 1973). Blackness for Sale, 2001. Screenshot of archived website displayed on monitor. Courtesy of the artists.

Blackness for Sale, 2001

Screenshot of archived website displayed on monitor
Courtesy of the artists

"We were thinking about the conversation around whether the internet is a space where we are free of identity and free of the oppressive forces that deal with categorizing people. Although a lot of that conversation was happening around the internet and around art, we felt like the place to address it would be in the art.”
—Mendi Obadike

In August 2001, the artists Mendi + Keith Obadike (she/her/hers and he/him/his, respectively) listed Keith’s “Blackness” for sale under the “Black Americana” section on eBay. The listing had no photo but a lengthy list of “benefits” and “warnings,” such as, “This Blackness may be used for gaining access to exclusive, ‘high risk’ neighborhoods” and “The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used during legal proceedings of any sort.” By satirically pretending that Keith’s race could be separated from his body, the work challenges the idea that the internet allows us to escape our identities, as many early internet users hoped, and suggests that the internet is more likely to commodify our identities instead. The use of eBay’s auction feature underscores that Blackness has long been violently commodified, going back to the earliest slave auctions. Despite regularly allowing sales of racist figurines and other problematic “Americana,” eBay cancelled the listing after four days, ironically demonstrating how the internet can further the exclusion of marginalized communities.

Mendi + Keith Obadike (American, both born 1973). The Interaction of Coloreds, 2002/2018. Website displayed on monitor and online form displayed on iPad. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artists.

The Interaction of Coloreds, 2002/2018

Website displayed on monitor; online form displayed on iPad
Courtesy of the artists; commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art for its Artport website

“We were thinking a lot about filters, and what we call social filters: the way certain identities get let into certain spaces and others get filtered out. In particular, we were thinking “about the internet. But we’ve thought about these kinds of questions in physical spaces, and in other kinds of digital spaces as well.”
—Keith Obadike

When first loading the website The Interaction of Coloreds, visitors are introduced to a new product called the “Color Check System.” This System promises to objectively identify your skin color by using hex codes, which encode colors on the Web. For example, the default code for white—which is also the default code of most webpages—is #FFFFFF. A parody of the “brown paper bag” tests that were once used to identify enslaved people who were light-skinned enough to work in the master’s house instead of the fields, the “Color Check System” invites you to submit photos of various parts of your body and to complete an absurd questionnaire (which you can fill out using the iPad on this table), after which you will be given a personal hex code that is entered into an “international database.”

By drawing attention to the encoding of color on the internet, the work challenges the default association of the internet with “whiteness,” both literally and metaphorically, while calling out colorism, or the persistent bias against darker-skinned Black people. The pretense that the “Color Check System” is a new service to facilitate online commerce also questions who gets to regulate and profit from the digitization of our identities. The title references the famed 1963 book Interaction of Color by the artist Josef Albers, pointing to the omission of Black artists and the exclusion of racial politics from art history, including and beyond the field of net art.

The updated version of this work is also freely available for you to experience on your own by visiting theinteractionofcoloreds.com.

The Interaction of Coloreds, 2002

Mendi + Keith Obadike

View the archived 2002 version of the work here.

The internet was also both a venue and an instrument at the same time. We began working online because we were living part of our lives online. We believed in making art everywhere.

Mendi + Keith Obadike to Aria Dean

"#000 Is a Color: An Interview with Mendi + Keith Obadike"

Interview by Aria Dean

Mendi + Keith Obadike discuss their online project Black Net.Art Actions as part of Rhizome's online exhibition Net Art Anthology.

Read the full interview here.

In almost every undergraduate course that I teach on surveillance I share with the class Blackness for Sale. I see the students nodding their heads, some chuckling, when they read it. It’s so familiar to them.

Simone Browne, “Get at a Way of Telling”

“Get at a Way of Telling” On Black Net.Art Actions

Simone Browne

"On August 8, 2001 Mendi + Keith Obadike listed Keith’s Blackness, Item #1176601036, for sale on eBay under the categories Black Americana and Fine Art..."

Read Browne's full essay here.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the myth that race disappears online still shaped how many people understood the emancipatory potential of computer networks. The [Black Net.Art] Actions helped to counter that myth by revealing how the histories that influence our ideas and experiences of race persist throughout our encounters on the network.

Megan Driscoll, "Art, Race, and the Internet: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Black.Net.Art Actions"

Art, Race, and the Internet: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Black.Net.Art Actions

Megan Driscoll

"Looking at the landscape of the internet today, it’s hard to imagine conversations about race not being a central part of net culture..."

Read Driscoll's full essay here.

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