The Numinous

On the Immersive Films of Ja’Tovia Gary

By Jane Ursula Harris

View of “Ja’Tovia Gary: The Giverny Suite” at Zollamt MMK, Frankfurt, 2021. Photo: Leonore Schubert

  • 17 May 2024
  • Issue 10

“I often say my films are for audiences who have yet to be born,” Ja’Tovia Gary tells me as she explains the relationship between her films and the sculptural works she’s been incorporating into her larger installations and exhibitions. In a recent neon series, Citational Ethics (2021–present), she features quotations from prominent Black writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, whom she calls her “North Stars.” In another, she projects excerpts from her forthcoming feature-length memoir film, tentatively titled The Evidence of Things Not Seen, onto cotton-covered ancient architectural forms, such as the armillary sphere she uses for the work In my mother’s house there are many, many. . . (2023).

“The sculptures are similar,” she says. “I’m making future relics.” The idea of speculative time, in which past, present and future remain open to perpetual revision, has become a hallmark of Gary’s work. Known for poetic, experimental films that engage with and trouble notions of the archive, Gary uses a documentarian’s instincts to underscore the fallibility of the historical record, bringing a radical subjectivity to Black femme concerns. Her work is intrinsically reparative, redressing the distortions that underpin America’s racial imaginary.

In The Giverny Suite (2019), a montage presented across three screens, scenes of Gary moving through the storied gardens merge with audio of Diamond Reynolds’ account of her partner Philandro Castille’s murder by police, which occurred while Gary was in residence in Monet’s famous idyll. The disjunctive experience of privilege and peril is amplified by scenes of the artist asking women on the streets of Harlem if they “feel safe,” as well as archival footage of Josephine Baker performing inside a cage in the 1934 film, Zouzou. That Baker is known largely for her banana dance as opposed to being one of the first Black women in film—and that the song she sings in the cage, “Haiti,” is one of lament and exile—are matters left for viewers to parse as they watch the silent excerpt.

In Gary’s works, layers of meaning are intentionally dense and sometimes conflicting. The Giverny Suite includes Nina Simone’s deeply felt rendition of Morris Albert’s hit, “Feelings,” filmed live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. Simone’s emotional performance that night has been characterized as both fragile and temperamental, linked to her state of mind amid domestic abuse and financial stress. But as Gary’s juxtaposition of the concert with footage of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton reminds us—underscored by scenes of the Citadel in Haiti, a European fort for the Atlantic slave trade—Simone had also suffered for decades, professionally and personally, because of her outspoken civil rights activism.

In her studio ... a photo of her great-grandmother watches over her; in a ritual to honor her forebear, Gary covers her head as she works.

Film still from Ja’Tovia Gary, Quiet As It’s Kept, 2023. Artworks © Ja’Tovia Gary. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

View of “Ja’Tovia Gary: The Giverny Suite” at Zollamt MMK, Frankfurt, 2021. Photo: Leonore Schubert

Among these filmic appropriations is Gary’s own body, present not only in the footage of her in Giverny and Harlem but also in the hand that animates blank film stock with pulsing blue and red biomorphic shapes. These ghostly yet haptic effects dance and flicker, infusing the montage with a palpable presence. Gary’s analog interventions function as an antidote to what she describes as “the lack of bodily autonomy Black women have experienced throughout the course of history.” During her time in Giverny, Gary told me, she found herself thinking about how Black women’s bodies constituted “a very particular and integral part of the American institution of chattel slavery,” their wombs becoming sites of capitalist production through quotidian and organized violence. “In many ways, my body is the thesis or perhaps the through-line that connects the film’s various themes: imperialism, capitalism, misogynoir [the combination of racism and sexism faced by Black women], the intersection of luxury and art history and the role of land. All of these notions are brought to bear on the body.”

At the entrance to The Giverny Suite, flanking either side of the installation, stand two altars dedicated to female Orishas, deities of the Yoruba religion. One is for the water spirit Yemonja, mother of all and giver of life; the other is for Oshun, a river goddess of love and healing. Candles, flowers and objects in colors associated with each Yoruban deity are placed carefully within the arrangement. The ritualistic purpose of these objects is personal for Gary, who practices a form of the ancient religion, organized around the veneration of ancestors. Another guiding principle for her work and life is the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa, which posits that one can only move forward in time by going back to retrieve what is valuable and forgotten.

Gary grew up in Dallas, Texas, in a strict Pentecostal household, where church was attended four days a week and secular music—90s hip-hop and diva pop at the time—was strictly off limits. She rebelled, immersing herself in high school theater, but her religious origins nonetheless deeply shaped her worldview. Witnessing congregants speak in tongues and become imbued with the Holy Spirit introduced her to the presence of the immaterial. “It primed me for an openness to the numinous, the woo-woo, the two-headedness,” she once said in an interview, referring to the transcendence of physical and spiritual binaries, as well as to the notion that everyone is born with a spiritual guide or “master of the head” that corresponds with their personality.

Views of Citational Ethics (Zora Neale Hurston, 1943), 2023

The concepts of Sankofa and two-headedness drive Gary’s synthesis of auto-ethnography and what she sees as ancestral collaboration—a reaching back to re-activate the visionary potential of the archive. “My initial excitement around archival materials was rooted in their haunted quality,” she told me. “The texture and muted colors of the footage, their metaphysical implications, create an ethics of care that structures how I employ them.” In her studio in Dallas, where she recently returned after several years of working and living in New York, a photo of her great-grandmother watches over her; in a ritual to honor her forebear, Gary covers her head as she works.

In her recent film Quiet As It’s Kept (2023), Gary invokes an ethics of care as a cinematic response to Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). As with The Giverny Suite, she intercuts historical and contemporary footage with her signature analog animations, creating a kind of alchemy of the quotidian and the surreal. The titular phrase “quiet as it’s kept”—which was used by David Hammons as the title for an exhibition he curated in 2002 and gained widespread visibility as the title of the 2022 Whitney Biennial—is employed by Morrison in the novel as a trope for themes of resilience, pain and generational trauma, realities familiar to Gary. She alludes to them in other works, such as the installation You Smell Like Outside. . . (2023), which draws its title from a Black Southern phrase. Both expressions embody multiple meanings, one of which is a shroud of shame, like the one worn by young Pecola in The Bluest Eye, whose descent into madness depicts how racism can manifest in self-loathing.

Quiet As It’s Kept weaves together archival scenes of Morrison discussing her work and an interview that Gary conducted with Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, the author of African Spiritual Traditions in The Novels of Toni Morrison (2014). Close-ups of marigolds—a motif of both life and death in Morrison’s novel—are interspersed with those of Gary consuming the flowers. She includes another phrase, the viral “Girls that get it, get it,” taken from a video by the Black TikToker KhaeNotBae, and juxtaposes it with non-Black users mimicking Blackness, poignantly connecting the novel to present-day issues. Gary also delves into the flip side of issues of appropriation with the use of a video of rap legend Lil’ Kim defending her changing appearance—wearing blonde wigs and blue contacts, bleaching her skin— shown alongside imagery of La Maison des Esclaves in Senegal (on Goree Island) and expanses of ocean.

By entangling the issues of colorism and racism that comprise Morrison’s novel with those of enslavement and blackfishing (a term coined in 2018 to describe white women cosplaying as Black women on social media), Gary engages—as Morrison did—in an intercultural conversation meant to invite healing through reckoning. “Where is the respect and the sympathy?” she seems to ask, reminding us of the toll exacted by mainstream, white-dominated culture on the mental health of Black women.

“My desire for a new world is predicated on the fact that this one must end. My intention with my work is to end the way we see and perceive our current world so that we can get about the business of visualizing, dreaming up and actively building the next one.”—Ja’Tovia Gary

Quiet As It’s Kept, 2023 at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2023. Photos: Steven Probert

In many ways, Gary is giving the figures she uses in her work their flowers, challenging criticisms levied at them as a way to question double standards about desirability and respectability. Such double standards are also evident in her choice to overlay viral imitations of Blackness onto footage of Shirley Temple, who was known to perform in blackface, conjuring Claudia’s infamous declaration in the The Bluest Eye: “I hate Shirley Temple. I want to poke her blue eyes out.” The juxtaposition points to the painful lesson at the heart of the novel, the way in which internalized racism—the desire for the “bluest eye”—creates, as Selassie states, “a self-genocide” that is inevitable “when you over-identify with your oppressor.” In a sequence preceded by archival footage from the 1990s of a young girl “catching” the Holy Spirit and a clip from the 1930s of a group of young Black girls in front of a sharecropper’s cabin, we watch Gary play with this idea: She puts on blue eyeshadow, black eyeliner and dons a Bettie Page-style wig.

Gary’s self-transforming performance —echoing the opening lines recited by Selassie from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s iconic 1895 poem, “We wear the mask that grins and lies/it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”—is a highly personal meditation on the paradoxical revelations of double-consciousness. There is agency in her gesture. In one of the film’s final scenes, we see her dressed in a blue sweater, stroking her face with a marigold as she intones a prayer to her guardian spirit: “It is Yemonja I call in morning. It is Yemonja I call at night. And it is Yemonja who answers.” Like the Victorian settee in The Giverny Suite that rears its side legs, a nearby refrigerator overflowing with marigolds accompanying the exhibition suggests her presence is already there.

Gary recently posted an Instagram story with the caption: “End this world so that we can get the next one popping.” It made me think about her work and its distinctive ways of oscillating among past, present and future, its uncanny mix of the mournful and the prophetic. What did her statement say, if anything, about her intentions for her work going forward, I asked her. “My desire for a new world is predicated on the fact that this one must end. My intention with my work is to end the way we see and perceive our current world so that we can get about the business of visualizing, dreaming up and actively building the next one. An important role of the artist is to lend our radical imaginings, our unbridled creativity and curiosity, our deep longing for elsewhere to the efforts of those who seek liberation and ultimate peace. We cannot continue to exist as we currently are, that is clear. Extreme shifts must and will assuredly occur. Cataclysmic and microscopic change is happening every day. Worlds end and begin every day. I’m simply asking for us to be deliberate and clear about what we imagine in our desire for a future, more egalitarian project. And soon.”

Jane Ursula Harris is a Brooklyn-based writer, art historian and curator. She has written for Artforum, The Believer, BOMB, Brooklyn Rail, GARAGE, The Paris Review, The Village Voice and other publications. She is a 2023 recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.