- Ronda Racha Penrice For the AJC
“My dad will tell you I’ve been acting a fool since I was about five, but I just wasn’t getting paid for it,” laughs Masud Olufani who, thanks to the first season of the BET show “The Quad,” is most recognizable these days as Judge Derek Fletcher.
Set in Atlanta, “The Quad” stars Anika Noni Rose—who voiced Disney’s first black princess, Tiana, in “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009—as Dr. Eva Fletcher, college president of the struggling black college, Georgia A&M University. Throughout this first season, which ends March 29, Olufani has popped in as Fletcher’s estranged husband who is pushing for divorce.
But while Olufani, a resident Atlantan, has held his own with the Tony award winner, acting has not been his primary occupation. Instead, it’s multimedia visual art. Currently Olufani is an artist-in-residence at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, but his work has also been supported and embraced in places as far away as Hong Kong and Lacoste, France.
Digging deep into history is a hallmark of Olufani’s work, examples include installations such as “Tight Packers,” which use pictures of black men framed by actual sardine cans in remembrance of the practice of packing Africans tightly into slave ships with no regard to their safety. The sardine cans were so hard to come by that Olufani, with help from his friends, bought and ate sardines for roughly a year to obtain them. Right now, Olufani is hard at work on several projects, including an ambitious seven-suite installation dealing with Hurricane Katrina, currently titled “Katrina Suite,” and a public art project involving a MARTA station that hits closest to home.
“This will be a public work of art that will be installed outside of the Marta train station at Five Points,” he explains as he sits in his studio, this day dressed casually in a loose-fitting button-down shirt, with a white T-shirt underneath. “It’s called ‘Blocked at Five Points’ because I found out that there was a slave auction house on the same grounds, but there’s no public indicator or anything that lets people know that that took place there.”
Olufani made this discovery while narrating the Civil War era documentary “37 Weeks: Sherman on the March,” which aired on Georgia Public Broadcasting in 2015 and can still be streamed on its website. That installation, which will display on the Marietta side of the station, should be completed in less than two years.
At the tender age of four, Olufani began drawing with his mother immediately proclaiming to his father then that “we got an artist in the house.” Because his parents split before he was a teenager, he grew up shuttling between two homes in various parts of the country. For him, art was always an anchor. He studied in numerous arts programs in various cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans and, eventually, Newark, where he graduated from Arts High School.
After high school, Parsons School of Design was his first stop, but New York proved overwhelming for him as a young man. So he came back to Atlanta to attend Morehouse, where he completed his degree in studio art.
After a stint at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, he again returned to Atlanta, leaving art behind for a brief time. When he gravitated back to his anchor, he got a small studio in Marietta and says “a chance encounter with the chair of the department of sculpture at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) led to a full scholarship.”
Since completing his MFA at SCAD in 2012, he has received numerous grants and residencies, including the SCAD Alumni Artist in Residence in Savannah, The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences in Rabun, GA, the 2015 Idea Capital Grant, the 2014-15 class of the Walthall Artist Fellowship and the 2015-16 Museum of Contemporary Art GA Working Artist Project grant. Also, in that time, he returned to theater acting, a childhood pastime.
Portraying Malcolm X in the play “The Meeting,” about a fictitious encounter between the one-time Nation of Islam leader and Dr. King, won him an agent. Initially he did voice work but quickly moved into on-camera work, scoring his first television role opposite Gabrielle Union on BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” followed by others on ABC’s “Nashville” and Lifetime’s “Devious Maids.” This June he’ll appear in the Tupac biopic “All Eyez on Me.” Right now, however, Judge Derek Fletcher is his most notable role.
“It’s just been a lot of fun to work on that set,” he says. “Anika’s great.” The fact that he won the role over a well-known actor has been very encouraging. And while he promises to never abandon his art, he admits to being pleased with how his acting career is progressing.
“I didn’t get into this business with any expectations. I didn’t know what was going to happen so to see people respond the way they are, it feels pretty damn good,” he says.