A LONE figure, shrouded in coat and gas mask, fights an army of faceless fascists to reclaim creativity for the masses—and rides away on a vintage Vespa.
Could there be a more stylish, simple way to present the plight of the modern artist?
There might be, but Jalal Pleasant has nailed it for now. Using lush landscapes and universal imagery, the 40 year-old Savannah-born painter, designer, filmmaker and street artist has distilled the personal and political conflicts of free expression in his latest work, “The Unknown: Battle Against Mediocrity,” screening at Sulfur Studios, Sunday, April 10.
Filmed on location in London, Amsterdam, New York, Savannah and St. Helena Island, the hour-long, independent film centers around the Unknown, a genderless hero living in a damned place where the arts have been suppressed by the “Anti-Art Police,” a corporate-like entity that sanctions certain types of art only as a mechanism to make money. The Unknown traverses this city of zombies on a classic scooter that is fueled by optimism—the only antidote to the apathetic poison unleashed into the air.
The abstract script and grainy footage from the 3.1 megapixel digital camera lend an ethereal, allegorical quality to the filmmaking, but the message is quite literal.
“So many young artists and creative people feel sort of exploited, like they’re not relevant and don’t have anything to contribute,” muses the soft-spoken Pleasant, who studied at the Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has spent the last 20 years traversing the world’s most robust underground art scenes.
“There’s this belief, ‘if I’m not in the right circle, if I’m not in with the galleries, I can’t do anything.’ And that’s what The Unknown is fighting against.”
Though he now regularly rubs shoulders with—and is represented by the same gallery as—international street icons Shepard Fairey and Max Zorn, it is Pleasant’s struggle as an unknown that brings him the most inspiration.
Pleasant developed his character as a New York club kid in the 1990s, installing his paste-ups and stencils on the walls of the East Village and Alphabet City while wearing a gas mask to stay anonymous and filter out “the noxious fumes of mediocrity.”
His studies and guerrilla style eventually led him to Berlin, then London, then Amsterdam, where he built a career in design while continuing to push the boundaries of the role of art in society.
“Basically, the films represent how art is above all about ideas, and how sharing those ideas creates stronger, more vibrant communities,” he says, citing Epcot Center and other futuristic Disney visions as influences as well as David Lynch and avant-garde German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Pleasant recently returned to Savannah to spend more time with family and work on the sequel to “The Unknown,” starring locally-based performance artist and musician Dame Darcy.
Using an Australian-made Black Magic camera, he also has another film in production, a documentary about his father, the late William M. Pleasant, Jr.
Known for his legacy of hand-painted signs around the city, the elder Pleasant was an avid player in the local Civil Rights movement and a contemporary of W.W. Law and other noted African American leaders of the generation.
He was also a prolific and professionally-trained fine artist, creating portraits and street scenes of a complex, multiracial city seeking to find unity—work that is rarely seen outside of private collections.
Selected paintings by William R. Pleasant will appear in a decade-long exhibition at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The artist was recognized by the King Tisdell Art Foundation in 2012, but a broad collection of Pleasant’s colorful work has never had a proper showing in a Savannah gallery or museum.
“He was dismissed as just a ‘sign painter,’ and towards the end of his life, the inability to be recognized by his own community had an emotional effect on him,” says his son.
“He began to feel less and less inspired.”
The younger Pleasant sees his father’s struggle with the mainstream art world reflected in “The Unknown,” which he says is meant to “cultivate a sense of hope for the future.”
“It represents the hopes and dreams and aspirations of young creative people. And that doesn’t mean just the ‘artists’,” admonishes the filmmaker, his hands forming the international gesture for air quotes.
“I mean anyone who wants to be creative in a world of mediocrity.”
He adds, “Artists must have the opportunity to be a part of the future.”