Whether he’s asking the audience to physically engage with his work or pause to reflect on their own personal experiences, Jeffrey Augustine Songco’s art leaves a lasting impression.
One of his most layered and intricate installations, “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room,” made its debut at ArtPrize 2017. Among the many odds and ends in the room were a collection of striking, rainbow-colored hoods. His work took the competition by storm, landing him the juried award in his category.
A New Jersey native, Songco has been interested in the arts all his life, though he didn’t start out as a visual artist.
“As a child actor, I would go into New York City to audition for roles that were primarily for white people,” Songco said. “As a young kid, I would read these casting calls that my mom would share with me, and I would hope that the very end of that paragraph said, ‘All ethnicities welcome.’ I grew up very, very aware and observing my own ethnicity, my own race and how that played into someone else’s production, whether it be a community in this town or whether it literally be on stage.”
You name it, he did it — ballet, tap, jazz, piano, chorus, the list goes on. While he enjoyed the performing arts, he decided to change gears in high school and dedicate his efforts to the visual arts, which led him to study fine art at Carnegie Mellon University and nurture his growing interest in installation work.
“Installation art is the creation of a work of art that you can be immersed by,” Songco said. “It can be multimedia, there could be different components and usually the art experience is one where you are surrounded by a lot of work. I just want the art visitor to experience a world that I create.”
As part of his undergraduate thesis exhibition, Songco created a spy character. Perhaps unbeknownst to him at the time, the birth of this persona would inspire a multifaceted body of work that would become a fixture of his portfolio as an artist.
“I wanted to give this spy character an origin story, and I realized that the CIA recruited members from the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale University, and I thought that was very cool,” he said. “I decided to make my spy character have an origin story that came from its own secret society, so I developed this group called ‘Society of 23,’ and spoiler alert, I play all the brothers of this society. I believe that my body is a material that goes beyond just ‘Jefferey taking pictures of himself;’ I think my work is describing these very complex narratives that are telling stories that people are actually able to relate to.”
Songco developed a uniform as part of the brotherhood and dubbed it the “GayGayGay robe.” The robe might look familiar, but it doesn’t have the connotation you might think.
“I was doing research in grad school about uniforms and brotherhood costumes, and I actually arrived at the capirote, which is this robe used in Spain in Catholic brotherhoods that looks exactly like a KKK outfit,” he said. “As Americans, we see this completely other interpretation of what this costume is. At the time, the color scheme of the brotherhood was the rainbow color scheme, so it just made conceptual sense for me to make this costume with rainbow-print fabric,” he added. “I wanted an origin story for the ritual robe, so I decided to make a room where I could put all 23 of them in one room and show where it exists, what the context was.”
And he did exactly that for his 2017 ArtPrize entry, “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room.” Three years later, Songco’s residency at Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh examines a new layer of his brotherhood narrative. “Society of 23’s Trophy Game Room” is a multimedia experience that invites guests to explore the leisure activities of the “Society of 23.”
“This space is set up the same way as ‘Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room’ in that there are just objects around the room,” Songco said. “There’s a bocce court, there’s a beer pong table, there’s a poker table, there’s a neon sign, there’s trophies, plaques — all of these very specific details. On top of this, I have created the first episode of the reality show of the brotherhood called ‘The Fabulous Society of 23,’ and it will be displayed within the installation itself on a projection screen and a television monitor.”
Even if you don’t get the opportunity to see Songco’s show at Mattress Factory before it closes in November, chances are you’ve seen his work around Grand Rapids. His 2015 ArtPrize entry featured a chain-link fence dressed in a rainbow of plastic beads. One of his more recent installations, “Tropical Realness” — a series of brightly-colored potted plants, stood on Monroe Center last September.
“While I am grounded in this conceptually based understanding of my production when I create my work, I also want it to look fabulous, so I often incorporate the rainbow, I often incorporate sparkles, glitter, crystals, anything that’s shiny and fun,” he said. “My work is always about complex symbols and how we interpret things and what meaning we place on objects. I love the drama and the humor of mixing meanings.”
Songco owes much of his success to the support he’s found in the art communities of Grand Rapids. Through his time here, he’s been able to explore concepts he said he probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I’ve been given so many opportunities by ArtPrize and by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.,” he said. “A lot of the work is not specifically related to the ‘Society of 23’ narrative, but it continues my esthetic choices; it’s something about the rainbow, it’s a large installation, it’s about my identity as a gay person of color. I’m so thankful that I can grow and learn from participating in that work.”
This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here.