We. Construct. Marvels. Between. Monuments., the year-long series of exhibitions that have taken over the top floor of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, has been one of the most exciting projects that the Portland Art Museum has committed its name to. It has not only opened up a small corner of the institution to the ideas of local organizations and creators, but also created space for queer artists, trans artists, and artists with disabilities.
Monuments., the final exhibit, is the most unexpected part of the series. Conceived by Deep Underground, a collective that supports artists of color in Portland, the presentation puts the spotlight on Sun Ra, the Afro-futurist jazz musician. The shorthand for this fascinating artist and philosopher (born Herman Blount) is that he spent the better part of his life claiming he was from Saturn, brought to Earth to preach messages of peace while also insisting Black people would never find equality on this planet and must therefore travel the spaceways to be truly free.
That astro-philosophical side of Sun Ra’s time in this world—he passed away in 1993—gets muted somewhat outside of a wonderful film by Anaka (not to be confused with the screenings of Sun Ra films at the Whitsell) that mixes together performances, interviews, and archival footage to put the musician in a historical context. Instead, the bulk of the exhibit is given over to historical treasures like a case filled with album covers, some handpainted, from throughout Sun-Ra’s 50-year career, ephemera such as a request to NASA to make use of the International Space Station, and some newly made costumes meant to evoke the late musician’s bright, shiny stage outfits.
It’s an incomplete picture, but it does a great job of providing an overview of what Sun Ra achieved during his “Earth Expedition,” as Deep Underground has dubbed his 79 years on this planet. And it makes great use of the space: One room is given over almost entirely to Anaka’s film, which, when coupled with the loud stereo system, becomes an immersive experience. In another alcove, they’ve set up listening stations to sample a variety of Sun Ra’s music, which was the core delivery system for his messages and a still-unmatched blend of free jazz, bop, doo-wop, and cosmic imagery. That’s more than enough to achieve some level of enlightenment.