When Ja’Tovia Gary studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she realized her interests differed from those of many around her. Her taste for social documentaries led to classes in cinéma vérité, a style through which canonical directors—most of them white males—made their subjects and viewers aware that a film was being made without necessarily seeming to understand their own role in the power dynamics at play. Camera rigs were frequently visible, and interviewees were reminded of the act of being filmed—but the directors seemed to think they were somehow invisible or working at an objective level of remove. “They blend in, like a fly on the wall,” Gary said of vérité heroes like Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles Brothers (“who are great,” she noted, “god bless their souls”).
Unlike such longstanding figures of the form, Gary recognized herself as a different kind of presence—and found herself embroiled in some tense conversations as a result. “I’m a subjective being,” she said. “I’m operating from a Black, feminist, subjective space. I am not hidden.”
Over the past five years, Gary’s synthesis of experimental filmmaking tradition with what she has called a “radical Black femme gaze” has made her one of the most closely watched young documentarians in the art world and the film world alike. Her most recent work, The Giverny Project—a complex meditation on the legacy of colonialism and the denigration of Black women’s bodies over the centuries—won an award at the vaunted Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland last year, and a three-channel version of the same work is now showing at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and Paula Cooper Gallery in New York (which began representing Gary last year alongside stars like Bruce Conner, Hans Haacke, Claes Oldenburg, and Walid Raad). In Making Images Move, a recent book surveying handmade cinema by scholar Gregory Zinman, Gary is considered at length alongside such art/film pioneers as Carolee Schneemann.
Despite her rise, Gary—who is 35 years old and based in Dallas—remains humble about all the attention. “When anyone has interest, I’m always kind of surprised,” she said earlier this month at Paula Cooper, where The Giverny Project is on view in show also including sculpture by Gary through March 21.
Gary spent 12 years as an actor before moving into the realm of art, and she speaks in a manner redolent of the practice, intoning words with a melodic cadence, drawing out syllables, and repeating phrases for emphasis. In conversation, she flits between subjects such as avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and scholarship by Hortense Spillers, Christina Sharpe, and Saidiya Hartman, who have all written thoughtfully on social spaces and “the archive” as they affect Black women. (For a neon sculpture in her gallery show, Gary relied on a quote from Hartman: “Care is the antidote to violence.”)
Her films evidence a similar sensibility, juxtaposing various strands of history—often through material appropriated from Hollywood films and the internet—to show how the past is always present. Among the sources of imagery in The Giverny Project are Zouzou, a 1934 film in which Joséphine Baker sings in an oversized birdcage; an old concert documentary of Nina Simone at the Montreux Jazz Festival; footage of Claude Monet painting in France; and the infamous 2016 video of Philando Castile’s death at the hand of a white police officer, which was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. Original footage includes interviews by a wig-wearing Gary (in an homage to Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1961 vérité cinema touchstone Chronicles of a Summer) with Black women about safety on the streets of Harlem as well as shots of Gary in Monet’s garden in Giverny, plus abstract segments featuring stills of pressed flora—all interspersed in a rhythmically edited style that can feel frenetic yet organized, with a secret architecture beneath it.
“When you put two things together, a new idea emerges,” Gary said, alluding to John Akomfrah and Sergei Eisenstein’s theories about montage. “What happens when you put together me in the garden, Claude Monet painting, and Nina Simone looking forlornly? There’s a conversation happening across time [that] feeds my obsession with the archive as a living, breathing thing.”
Gary has been working on The Giverny Project for a long time, expanding it from a short into a 40-minute feature and then a three-channel video installation. “I’m slowly sitting with this work, for years,” she said.
“Her primary audience, specifically for this piece, is Black women,” said Erin Christovale, an associate curator at the Hammer who organized that institution’s presentation of the film. “We have seen ourselves represented, on film and in the art world, but it’s very rare that there’s this complex, loaded, thoughtfully articulated piece in which you can actually think about interiority.”
Such an emphasis on care and the need for better representation figures in the majority of Gary’s work, which involves laboring over images in an attempt to better understand their political significance through processes such as etching patterns and shapes into appropriated film to cause colorful dots and dashes to jump across the screen. She began relying on this technique early on, scratching up film strips of the actress Ruby Dee playing a slave that figured in a six-minute 2015 short An Ecstatic Experience, which showed at the Whitney Museum in 2017 as well as in a group exhibition about James Baldwin curated by Hilton Als for David Zwirner gallery last year.
“People were out in the streets, shit was on fire,” Gary recalled of the time she spent making An Ecstatic Experience, in the midst of Black Lives Matters protests sweeping the nation. “That’s a film of outrage.”
But working on it provided reprieve from her day job as an assistant editor on a far more conventional kind of documentary (even if that film was a four-hour documentary about Jackie Robinson co-directed by Ken Burns). She remembered thinking at the time: “This allows me to think, this allows me to breathe, this allows me to feel my feelings about what may be happening in the world.”
Gary wants to make visible the long and intimate relationship between filmmaking and female labor. “I am considering the labor practices of women when I’m working,” Gary said of early cinema’s underappreciated debt to female animators and editors. “I can easily go and learn how to do that shit digitally. [But] it’s not going to feel the same, it’s not going to look the same, and it’s not going to be the same process of me sitting down—with my hand.”
Of late, Gary has plied her hand increasingly in the kind of sculpture in her gallery show, such as Precious Memories (Tower), 2020, an arrangement of several stacked and tipped monitors with a layer of cotton as a buffer between each. (“Almost like Nam June Paik,” she said, “but not.”)
Moving from film to sculpture was a risk, but Gary was proud to show the fruits of her labor in a new way. “I’m considering the archive and the material of film, taking time with it—as we say in the church, tarrying with it,” she said of that work, “because I’m imbuing it, infusing it with my life, my life force, my emotional force, my hands, my elbow grease, all of it.”
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