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Art

Ja’Tovia Gary’s Newest Film Explores Black Womanhood, Sexuality, and Power

Ja’Tovia Gary, Citational Ethics (Saidiya Hartman, 2017), 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Ja’Tovia Gary, Citational Ethics (Saidiya Hartman, 2017), 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Portrait of Ja’Tovia Gary by S*an D. Henry-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Portrait of Ja’Tovia Gary by S*an D. Henry-Smith. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

creates art about taking up space. Her inaugural exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, “flesh that needs to be loved,” holds true to this idea. The presentation debuts THE GIVERNY SUITE (2019)—an expanded version of Gary’s acclaimed film The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019)—as well her first multimedia sculpture. Filled with thoughtful and dynamic references to Black feminist theory, Gary’s work invokes a trance-like meditation around Black womanhood, sexuality, and power. (Paula Cooper Gallery is temporarily closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In THE GIVERNY SUITE, which is also being shown at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles this year, Gary reflects on the complex experiences she had while living in Giverny, France, for an artist residency at ’s hometown in 2016. “It was both a beautiful, but very difficult time,” she said during a recent phone interview. Monet’s iconic gardens are the backdrop for crucial moments in the work, which is a 39-minute, three-channel video installation. At the core of the film is footage of a nude Gary screaming and running through the lush greenery, contrasted by a cut of her lounging in poses reminiscent of the women in classical French paintings.
Ja’Tovia Gary, installation view of THE GIVERNY SUITE (detail), 2019, in “flesh that needs to be loved” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Ja’Tovia Gary, installation view of THE GIVERNY SUITE (detail), 2019, in “flesh that needs to be loved” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

“There are moments of deep vulnerability,” Gary said of her fraught time in Giverny. She experienced highly conflicting feelings about being a Black woman enveloped in such an elite and luxurious place in France. “The environment as a whole was a really unique experience that forced me to reckon with my body and identity as a woman, as a Black person, but also as an artist.”
Gary, a Dallas native, recently relocated to her hometown after living in New York for 17 years. She is best known for highly conceptual, timeless work that is rooted in—among many things—her obsession with and appreciation of Black historical archives. Ultimately, Gary’s work unearths the intricacies of Blackness that are often misrepresented.
“I’m a student of history,” Gary explained. An early, formative lesson as a film student introduced her to ’s methods of montage-editing—placing together “seemingly disparate clips” to create new meaning. Using the historic film director’s method, Gary is able to develop ever-changing, nuanced discussions on age-old concepts. And while she’s often regarded as an experimental filmmaker, she emphasized that she’s committed to using both formal and avant-garde techniques in her work. She noted that editing is paramount to her process—which becomes evident upon seeing her work.
Ja’Tovia Gary, installation view of THE GIVERNY SUITE (detail), 2019, in “flesh that needs to be loved” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Ja’Tovia Gary, installation view of THE GIVERNY SUITE (detail), 2019, in “flesh that needs to be loved” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

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In addition to addressing her time at Giverny, in THE GIVERNY SUITE, Gary brings generations of fraught racial and cultural history into dialogue in a way that is both deeply personal and rooted in global race relations. The channel at the center of the installation shapes the film’s narrative theme, using original and archival footage. The latter includes a 1976 performance by Nina Simone at Montreux Jazz Festival; Diamond Reynolds following the murder of Philando Castile in 2016; Josephine Baker in the 1934 film Zouzou; and Fred Hampton speaking on political education in the late 1960s.
Gary calls into question notions of the safety and autonomy of Black women by inserting herself into the film. We see her engaging with other Black women of varying generations and nationalities. She stands in Harlem on the bustling Malcolm X Boulevard and asks the question “Do you feel safe?” to a number of willing participants, all of whom are Black women. Gary considers this a “fundamental” question, she said, and as the film indicates, many women are apprehensive to answer such a question from a stranger in the middle of their daily routine.
Ja’Tovia Gary, installation view of  THE GIVERNY SUITE (detail), 2019, in “flesh that needs to be loved” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Ja’Tovia Gary, installation view of THE GIVERNY SUITE (detail), 2019, in “flesh that needs to be loved” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Gary’s woman-on-the-street interview technique—formally called “vox populi”—is integral to the film’s main channel. It’s also a nod to the 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer by cinema verité filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. She noted that the film is one of the first in the tradition of French cinéma-vérité, a term coined by Morin.
Faced with simultaneous footage of Monet painting, Gary in the gardens, and a melancholy Nina Simone, viewers are challenged to make sense of how these various scenes might relate. “For me, it’s about this conversation across time,” Gary said. “I like to imagine what the ancestors would think if they were alive today, seeing us still toiling under the same conditions.”
Ja’Tovia Gary, Precious Memories (Tower) (detail), 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Ja’Tovia Gary, Precious Memories (Tower) (detail), 2020. © Ja’Tovia Gary. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Her dedication to engaging with history in her work traces back to the generative nature of research and digging through archives. “I think we are deluding ourselves if we feel like we can build a future without a close examination of the past,” she said.
Gary’s work encourages us to reflect on history and think about how we might contribute to the future. She noted that the Sankofa principle of West African philosophy says one must look back in order to look forward. Gary said her work is about “placing the ‘now’ in a historical trajectory, so that we can begin to think about our responsibility for the future and our responsibility towards the past.”
Daria Harper