Somehow, it makes perfect sense that Ashok Kondabolu‘s art exhibition and ideas convention puts fake Rolexes, early ’90s TV commercials, and the Ramayana (a Hindu epic poem that dates to the 4th-century BC) on equal footing. The guy talks a mile a minute, ideas both hairbrained and right-on spilling out of his mouth. Sometimes he veers off into sounding like that friend who’s really smart but smokes way too much weed. Ashok is definitely less hazy, but you’d still be wise to shrug off some of the goofy madness and self-conscious humor. Beneath it all there are nuggets of brilliance and speedy ambition, the products of which are on full display at Yo Fight My Mans, which opens tonight at Babycastles.
Ashok’s particular way of talking and idea manifestation make for great rap. (You might know the show’s curator better as Dapwell or simply Dap, of Das Racist– the beloved hip-hop crew that split in 2012.) It also lends to great radio, hence Ashok’s collaboration with the rapper Despot (aka Alec Reinstein) in the form of Chillin Island, their weekly online radio show that broadcasts music and off-kilter interviews with musicians (mostly rap and hip-hop artists) and others. Chillin Island is also the moniker of a “collective” consisting of the duo plus Aleksey Weintraub (aka Lakutis). “We started the show about six years ago and it spiraled out from there,” Ashok explained. “It kind of became a collective in the sense that we just attach ‘Chillin Island’ to any project we might be working on that fits with our worldview and aesthetic, which is a funny word to use.”
Even in light of all the collaborations and creativity, somehow Ashok seemed surprised that anyone would let him curate an art show. “I don’t really consider myself an artist,” he said. “Well, I don’t really describe myself as that when people ask what I do, because it’s such a loaded word.” Still, starting when he was a teenager, Ashok has kept an ever-growing list of “ridiculous ideas.” The show, which at first might seem like a chaotic amalgamation of randomness, definitely reflects some defining themes from that list, plus everything he’s ever wanted to put into an art show. “I meet a lot of weird people, whatever that means, and any time I go to an art show, or see something on the street or on the screen I’m like ‘Whoa!’” Ashok explained. “It makes me think of my own idea, and I’m like, ‘Man, if I ever had an art show, you know what would be cool?’
And so he’s taking full advantage of his gallery moment by creating what he admits is an “expansive and sprawling” show where the art will rotate every week. Extending from February 12 to March 19, it’s over a month long and is divided into six, “ridiculously broad” themes with matching panel discussions in art, journalism, venues, music, film, and parents.
Much of the art work in the show and topical discussion bring up issues that Ashok cares deeply about. “It’s very, very personal stuff that I found super interesting to revisit and think about and try and contextualize in terms of well, how did this stuff effect me?” he explained. All three of the Chillin Island guys are New York City natives, so the show has a lot to do with the city. The “venues” theme, for example, includes a talk with Sam Hillmer (aka Diamond Terrifier) who’s active at Trans-Pecos; Zachary Mexico, owner of Baby’s All Right and Elvis Guest House; and Alex Escamilla, owner of Lover’s Rock, the hip new Bed-Stuy bar that nods deeply to that Island life.
Of course, you can’t talk about New York City without mentioning everyone’s favorite topic. As the curatorial statement reads, among other things, the show is about “poorly conceived and executed gentrification metaphors.” For a sculptural piece, Ashok made use of black lights, genetically modified fish, and ceramics (made with Alec’s brother Jacob Reinstein) to discuss gentrification. “We put together these two tanks, one of them is supposed to represent a poor neighborhood and the other one’s supposed to represent a neighborhood that’s in the process of gentrifying. It’s a little over-the-top, but also I think an interesting way to put out that idea out there visually.”
As New York-centric as “Yo Fight My Mans” might be, it manages to avoid being masturbatory. “It’s not particularly celebratory or parochial about it,” Ashok said. “Like, oh whoopty-fuckin’-do, you’re from New York. Well, so are 8 million other people.”
Besides being a locally sprouted kid, Ashok was also keen to include another pieces of his identity. “A lot of it has to do with my particular experience of being an Indian-American,” he said. “One of the centerpieces of the show is a recreation of an early-1990’s Indian-American, Queens living room, my living room essentially.” There’s another piece devoted specifically to Ashok’s parents, who moved to New York before he was born– his dad in ’78, his mom in ’81– and their experiences of seeing snow for the first time. He reconstructs their memories by utilizing “the actual clothes that my parents wore when they came to this country,” recordings of their recollections, and mannequins he painted brown. (“It’s actually really hard to find brown mannequins at reasonable prices, which is pretty fucked up,” he explained.) Also included in the show is a chopped-up, highlight reel sort of video with bits and pieces from the epically long late-80’s TV miniseries rendition of the Ramayana. In fact, much of the show incorporates video as an important element. The venue panel discussion, for instance, includes what’s described as a “nightlife video megamixx.”
The show, in its multifacetedness, is an attempt to convey an equally complex identity and worldview. “Everything about my identity was very fluid, my Indian identity was very easy for me to perform in a way,” Ashok explained. “And it was just as easy for me to go outside and be a dirtbag when I was older, and hang out with other kids and fight, and do stuff I wasn’t supposed to do– it was all part and parcel of my identity, there was no definitive line between these things.”
Even though this show is very much about Ashok’s inner workings, to say that he’s sharing the spotlight is an understatement. “In some ways, it’s just an outlet for me and people I know to show people things that we’re interested in,” he explained. Along with work by a slew of participating artists including Joe Salina of Babycastles and multimedia artist Sonya Belakhlef, there are six different panel discussions, one for each category. And don’t think for a minute any of them suffer from the white-boy-voices-only syndrome that infects so, so many panels in the art world and beyond. The lineup is incredibly diverse– “a broad smattering of people,” Ashok said.
For music, there’s Fat Tony and Maluca, among others. And the journalism discussion includes Jason Parham at Fader, and Jenna Wortham at the Times. But many of the discussants are simply friends and collaborators of Chillin Island. “I wanted to include people that are part of our circle, that we see regularly and that we have a rapport with,” Ashok explained.
If you’re still not convinced, there’s going to be a host of other entertaining happenings throughout the exhibition too. Because this is Babycastles, several new video games will be debuted including a demo of the show’s namesake, Yo Fight My Mans. “It’s a Tekken-style fighting game, where we grafted onto the fighters people from our world,” Ashok said. Not wanting to reveal too much, he hinted at a few more things on the list. “There’s one thing we’re doing called the Storefront Photoshop– it’s essentially about chain stores and how chain stores effect communities visually and also culturally and a bunch of colored pencil drawings and impromptu conversations,” he explained. “We’re going to announce last-minute workshops on, like, brewing tea.”
Ok, even if the show sounds eclectic to the point of being far out, trust that Ashok– self-described “native person of leisure”– has picked out the best nugs he could find from his crazy list.
Yo Fight My Mans opens Friday February 12 at Babycastles, events start at 6 pm, panel 7 pm to 8 pm, music 8 pm to 10 pm. Gallery is open for viewing Fridays 12 to 6 pm and during the events. The exhibition runs through Saturday March 19, see schedule for detailed list of events.