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Visualizing Refusal: Ja’Tovia Gary’s Acts of Care

Visualizing Refusal: Ja’Tovia Gary’s Acts of Care

Two Black women stand in the street. One, filmmaker Ja'Tovia Gary, wears a red scarf as she holds a micrphone in front of the woman wearing a yellow coat. The woman wearing the yellow coat is preparing to answer a question.

The bass in Alice Coltrane’s 1971 song “Journey in Satchidananda” provides the pulse to black-and-white footage of a group of worshippers arriving at an intimate revival. Microbial animations are choreographed to the sound of the saxophone. Church fans and programs flutter in the southern heat while the congregation nods in unison to the preacher’s word. The music dissolves and the scene fades as actress Ruby Dee enters to deliver an emotive performance, based on a narrative by a former slave named Fannie Moore, that conjures the spirit of a woman declaring her freedom from enslavement. The scene then cuts to Assata Shakur in Cuba asserting that she “decided…it was time to escape and that’s what I did.” From Moore’s 1937 account of her mother’s liberation to Dee’s reenactment in 1965; Shakur’s remarks in 1987 and protest footage from Ferguson and Baltimore, these testimonies constitute a genealogy of Black resistance.

These scenes make up An Ecstatic Experience (2015), a six-minute meditation on transcendence and restoration by Dallas, Texas native, visual artist, and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary. The short film, which she describes as a “disjointed, nonlinear culmination of sights and sounds,”1Ja’Tovia Gary, “A Care Ethic,” filmed July 2018 at AD & A Museum UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA, video, 1:19:45, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZwVuvU-4Qg. is her earliest effort in utilizing non-conventional cinematic techniques to investigate power relations in society. Through her steady engagement with archival material, Gary creates a multi-textured visual language all her own.

Alluding to the significance of Black musical traditions in her work, writer and film programmer Rooney Elmi brilliantly describes Gary’s cinematic strategy as “chopping and screwing the archive.”2 Rooney Elmi, “What Happened When a Filmmaker Asked Black Women Whether They Feel Safe,” Hyperallergic, November 15, 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/519343/jatovia-gary-ciff-interview-giverny-document/. This form of remixing music is a slowing down that alters and abstracts the grain of a composition. 3Chopping and screwing was a technique that originated on the southside of Houston, Texas by the late, great Robert Earl Davis Jr. aka DJ Screw. The presence of Gary’s hand in her process comes through her innovative approach to editing her films. For Gary, her role as editor is an opportunity to further trouble the complex interplay of power that embeds itself in the molding of a narrative, the execution of authorship, and the histories that complicate therein. Gary’s signature use of direct animation is derived from what the artist calls “a poverty of materials” and influenced by techniques employed by 1950s avant-garde filmmakers. Using a range of materials like paint, bleach, and toothbrushes to etch directly on the surface of 16mm film, she creates an array of geometric shapes and colorful accents. During a recent phone call, Gary explains to me that direct animation allowed her “to make something that feels kaleidoscopic, something that opens [her] up visually and emotionally.” The repetitive mark-making transforms the surface of the film, making her physical presence known.

Gary’s most recent and spellbinding work, THE GIVERNY SUITE, (2020), is a three-channel installation anchored by a 41-minute single-channel film entitled THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT, (2019). An iteration of the SUITE debuted at Galerie Frank Elbaz in Paris, France, and was recently exhibited at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York and The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. During a residency with the Terra Foundation of American Art in 2016, Gary spent two months in Giverny, France—a small pastoral paradise known for its prominence in the work of Impressionist painter Claude Monet (who lived and worked there from 1833 to his death in 1926). Despite the beauty of the luxurious commune, Gary’s experience in Giverny was heavily shaped by that summer’s dramatic increase of anti-Black violence and death ranging from police brutality in the United States to the migrant crisis in Europe. What resulted was a six-minute video entitled Giverny I (Negress Imperiale, 2017), which is fully incorporated into THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT as a key text and catalyst for her investigation of Western imperialism’s effect on the safety and bodily autonomy of Black women.

The sonic backdrop to Giverny I is Louis Armstrong’s cover of Edith Piaf’s 1947 song “La Vie en rose,” chopped and screwed by fellow Dallas native and composer Nelson Bandela Nance. 4Formerly known and credited in Giverny I (Negress Imperiale) as Norvis Jr. Nance’s sedated remix of this post-war ballad provides a potent sense of uneasiness and intensifies the frequency of the fragmented images. Scenes of Gary wandering the grounds of Monet’s garden are intercut with archival footage of Fred Hampton speaking on the importance of political education; Monet’s painting in his garden in 1915; and the haunting Facebook live stream video captured by Diamond Reynolds at the time of Philando Castile’s murder by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Constantly switching between these seemingly disparate worlds, Gary mirrors her movement with the commands given to Reynolds by the policemen. Throughout the live stream, Reynolds refuses to be silenced in the throes of this fatal encounter. Describing the public school where Castile works, and the fact that he was licensed to carry with no criminal record, Reynolds insists on Castile’s humanity even as she witnesses his sudden death. “We don’t deserve this,” she utters painfully as her words flash on the screen in green text. Clearly in shock, Reynolds recounts every detail of the incident in the final moments of the live stream.

A film still from Ja'Tovia Gary's THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT (2019). A garden background onto which an abstract image is collaged onto the foreground. Beneath this image, the feet of a black person can be seen.
THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT (2019) Single Channel, 41 mins. Directed, edited and animated by Ja’Tovia Gary. Producers Paige Wood, Artesia Balthrop, Ja’Tovia Gary. Cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry.
a SPELL NUMBER SEVEN production.

Gary uses direct animation in place of Castile’s bleeding body which keeps our focus on Reynolds. This gesture epitomizes a practice of refusal—Gary’s way of creating what scholar Tina Campt describes as “radical modalities of witnessing that refuse authoritative forms of visuality which function to refuse blackness itself.” 5Tina Campt, “Black visuality and the practice of refusal,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory Volume 29, issue 1 (February 2019): 79-87, https://www.womenandperformance.org/ampersand/29-1/campt?rq=tina%20campt. It also echoes Christina Sharpe’s ideas on redaction, a means of visually disrupting the ways that images of Black suffering and distress appear so regularly in our lives. This careful treatment of the live stream footage is largely due to Gary’s awareness of how images of Black bodies in pain are ceaselessly circulated with minimal regard for the collective psychological trauma that ensues. Through this, Gary centers the lives of Black women in the aftermath of trauma. However, one could argue against the ethics of including live stream video at all, especially considering the contexts in which this body of work is shown (i.e. film festivals, museums, and commercial art galleries). To what degree is the constant consumption of Reynold’s trauma accounted for here? More importantly, how is this presence/absence of bodies reconciled? By posing herself en plein air amidst the loaded landscape, Gary underscores the tension and fragility embodied in the imagery she sources. At the climax of the video, Gary stands naked amongst the foliage, holding a cigarette while the screen glitches uncontrollably to the sound of Reynold’s voice. Gary runs, screams, and constantly stares with eyes fixed on the camera.

In an essay titled “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black feminist writer and theorist, bell hooks remarks: 

“There is power in looking. . . Even in the worst circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain, opens up the possibility of agency.” 6 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 116.

Gary’s decision is profound. By inserting her own body, both on the emulsion of the film and onto the screen, her gaze becomes a site of resistance and a gateway into her interior psychological space. 

Per Elmi’s astute assessment of Gary’s embrace of the sonic, THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT folds in captivating footage of Nina Simone’s closing performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 with a rendition of Morris Albert’s song, “Feelings.” Across the duration of the performance, The High Priestess of Soul challenges her audience, demanding their participation as she bares her battered soul. Raw emotion pours from her fingertips into the piano as a rhythmic arrangement of Gary’s direct animation splits the screen. Resurfacing the idea of transcendence as a form of resistance in her earlier work, Gary evokes the rich legacy of Black artistic expression as crucial evidence of Black survival and resilience in an ode to Simone’s creative genius. 

See Also

A still from Ja'Tovia Gary's THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT (2019). The image is split. On the left, Nina Simone is seated at her piano. On the right a close image of a red animation.
THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT (2019). Single Channel, 41 mins. Directed, edited and animated by Ja’Tovia Gary. Producers Paige Wood, Artesia Balthrop, Ja’Tovia Gary. Cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry.
a SPELL NUMBER SEVEN production.

Another key element in THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT is the verite footage shot in the streets of Harlem, New York, as Gary poses the question “Do you feel safe?” to a multigenerational cast of Black women. Passing through the corner of 116th street and Lenox avenue, these women share that their sense of safety is shaped by their familiarity with their neighborhood, their faith in God or the ways that they have learned to protect themselves by modifying their appearance (i.e toning down the way they dress to ward off unwanted attention from men). Some respond with instances of being followed and fearing the unexpected, “especially in Harlem.” Their responses call to mind the Lady in Blue’s monologue from Ntozake Shange’s American classic, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976). “I usedta live in the world / a woman in the world / i hadda right to the world / then I moved to Harlem.” This refrain speaks to the complex, gendered estrangement felt by Black femmes who traverse the streets of Harlem, despite the neighborhood being regarded as promising ground for Black life and belonging. As a new Harlem resident, Gary’s work requires that I reflect on my own un/safety. Who walks with Black women? Who is charged to protect, support, and love us? “The ancestors. Our foremothers and fathers who stand with us in the invisible space,” Gary goes on to tell me as we speak. Her choice to film in Harlem was inspired by its historic legacy and the constellation of figures, like Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry who made their way in this iconic neighborhood. “I also knew that I would be able to encounter a number of different types of Black women.” Gary shares. In the face of growing tensions amplified by gentrification, Harlem still remains highly concentrated with Black people of transnational identities and a wealth of embodied experiences.

Indeed, as a daughter of the U.S. South—a landscape that remains a genesis story for much of what we understand to be American today—Gary’s meditation on place is only heightened. Harlem, a Black mecca whose spiritual and cultural significance radiates throughout the Black diaspora. Giverny, a bucolic French landscape through which Monet and the context in which he worked was underwritten by global imperialism, genocide, and enslavement. Alternating between the streets of central Harlem and the French garden, THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT emphasizes the significance of both physical and psychological landscapes. 

Currently in production is Gary’s autobiographical, feature-length experimental documentary, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which traces her lineage to address the generational inheritance of trauma, and explore the importance of ancestral memory. Through intimate, confessional conversations with her loved ones, Gary explores her familial history to counter both external and internally inflicted pain and trauma embodying an offering from scholar Saidiya Hartman: care is the antidote to violence. 7Hartman uses this terminology while introducing Christina Sharpe during a salon organized in Sharpe’s honor. “In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe” was filmed on February 2, 2017, at Barnard College in New York, NY, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGE9oiZr3VM.

Ultimately, what is pivotal to understanding Gary’s work, as evidenced by her thoughtful engagement with archival material, is the recognition of her investment in healing. And arguably, the most resonant aspect of Gary’s work is the way her films visualize the ideas of Black feminists theorists, like hooks, Hartman, and Sharpe. This chorus of thinkers has provided a blueprint for understanding Blackness in the wake of slavery, our various frequencies of life, and the interiority of Black womanhood. As Gary emphasizes, I want my work to be a galvanizing tool to shift the way we think and feel, especially about images of Blackness.” 

THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT is currently screening online for free here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amarie Gipson is a writer, dj, and arts worker from Houston, Texas.

References   [ + ]

1.Ja’Tovia Gary, “A Care Ethic,” filmed July 2018 at AD & A Museum UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA, video, 1:19:45, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZwVuvU-4Qg.
2. Rooney Elmi, “What Happened When a Filmmaker Asked Black Women Whether They Feel Safe,” Hyperallergic, November 15, 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/519343/jatovia-gary-ciff-interview-giverny-document/.
3.Chopping and screwing was a technique that originated on the southside of Houston, Texas by the late, great Robert Earl Davis Jr. aka DJ Screw.
4.Formerly known and credited in Giverny I (Negress Imperiale) as Norvis Jr.
5.Tina Campt, “Black visuality and the practice of refusal,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory Volume 29, issue 1 (February 2019): 79-87, https://www.womenandperformance.org/ampersand/29-1/campt?rq=tina%20campt.
6. bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 116.
7.Hartman uses this terminology while introducing Christina Sharpe during a salon organized in Sharpe’s honor. “In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe” was filmed on February 2, 2017, at Barnard College in New York, NY, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGE9oiZr3VM.
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