In Bringing Jewish Champion of African Art to Life, Rux Stops Here


Carl Hancock Rux brings his meditation on the life of Carl Einstein to the Kimmel Center beginning Oct. 8.

For most people interested in learning about their background, an afternoon spent on or some quality time with the family elders is enough to satisfy any curiosity.
For multidisciplinary artist Carl Hancock Rux, the desire to learn more about his history meant embarking on a 10-year journey that would intersect with the chaotic, tragic life of Carl Einstein, one of the 20th century’s most influential art critics.
That confluence will play out in public Oct. 8 through 10 at the Kimmel Center, when Rux mounts his multimedia event, The Exalted, in advance of its opening at the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., later this month.
“I was really interested in looking at my own lineage — my great-grandfather is German, my name is specifically German,” Rux explains. “I have spent a lot of time in Germany, and there was always a reaction to my last name. People weren’t expecting an African American with my last name.”
Rux, who has been lauded and awarded for his work in literature (his book, Autonomedia, won a Village Voice Literary Prize), music (his debut album, Rux Revue, was voted one of the Top 10 alternative music CDs by the New York Times) and theatre (he has been a National Endowment for the Arts/Theater Communications Group Playwright in Residence Fellow), found that his research kept leading back to Einstein.
“As I looked at the history of African Americans in Germany during the Weimar era” — the tumultuous decades between the First World War and the rise of the Nazis — “and at the history of Germany in Africa, one of the things I found was Negerplastik.”
The book (“Negro Sculpture” in English), written by Einstein in 1915, when he was 30 years old, is a seminal work that represents the first time African art was given the attention and respect it was due, especially in regard to its outsized influence on the then-ascendant Cubists in Europe.
As a prominent proponent of Cubism, Einstein’s appreciation of African art seems only natural, and has continued to earn him plaudits a century later. Unfortunately, his achievement did not augur a life of continued success.
As The Exalted touches upon, Einstein seemed to be constantly searching for a cause to believe in and a place where his communist sympathies would be accepted.
After serving in the German Army in World War I, he stayed actively involved in left-wing activities like the failed Spartacist Uprising in Berlin and the Revolutionary Soldiers’ Council in Brussels before decamping for France in 1928 and fighting in the anarchist Durruti Column against the fascist forces of Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
After the end of the Spanish Civil War, Einstein returned to France, where he found himself a man without a country, trapped after the fall of the French Third Republic and the Nazi invasion of 1940. Unable to leave France or return to Germany, he committed suicide in the Pyrenees later that year.
For an artist, Einstein’s life offers a surfeit of material. Indeed, in addition to the theatrical event, Rux is turning The Exalted into a book.
“Everything I do crosses genres and disciplines,” he explains. “I wrote a novel, Asphalt, that was also a dance opera. I often bring things that are creative in one way into performance mode.”
For the theatrical presentation of The Exalted, which arose out of readings of the novel he did at UCLA in 2013, Rux is working with the director Anne Bogart, herself a Next Wave veteran; the video artist Onome Ekeh; and the German composer/performer Theo Bleckmann. When asked why he brought on people to do things he has already proven himself more than capable of doing, Rux has a simple answer: collaboration.
“I love working with other people and hearing their voices,” he says. “I was particularly interested in how a German artist would musically conceptualize this story. And it would allow me to be free to think about how I was excerpting it for the stage.”
Those attending the performance, he says, should be prepared for a powerful story — just not one told in traditional fashion. “This is a very hard, very complicated piece to describe, not a linear play at all. It’s a meditation on how similar we are — the histories of the people, the stories of oppression.”
Despite 10 years spent on discovery, a decade that has resulted in the various forms of The Exalted, Rux is clear that his journey of discovery is not finished yet.
“The performance is part of the journey,” he emphasizes. “I initially thought this work was interesting to me because there was this interstice between a Jewish story and an African story, which makes perfect sense. It’s about looking at the past to understand the present — looking at a character that seems remote and removed from me, but is closer to me than I initially thought.”
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