Ja’Tovia Gary: flesh that needs to be loved
On ViewPaula Cooper Gallery
While Ja’Tovia Gary lived and worked as an artist in residence in Giverny in 2016, a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, two policemen murdered 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and an officer opened fire and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile in Minnesota. Since then, Gary has produced two films—Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017) and The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019)—in response to that summer’s acts of domestic terror. The Giverny Suite (2020) is the third in the series and further expands Gary’s study of Black womanhood, institutionalized violence, and the reverberating effects of trauma throughout generations.
In the 6-minute haptic photomontage, Giverny I (Négresse Impériale), formal glitches—flecks of color, fragments of leaves, and drawings—dance within and between pieces of original and archival footage. Gary layers video of herself walking in the Giverny gardens, Diamond Reynolds’s video recording of the police officer who murdered Philando Castile, and of reality TV star Joseline Hernandez saying: “Can I fucking live?” Images of waterfalls and ocean waves play with scenes of Nina Simone live in concert at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, Josephine Baker in a gilded birdcage, and an elderly Claude Monet painting. There are moments when Shirley Ann Lee sings How Can I Lose (1968) and a remix of Louis Armstrong’s 1950 recording of La Vie en Rose plays over Fred Hampton leading a Black Panther meeting and images of the US drone strikes appear with film from a Haitian travel log.
In 2019, Gary produced a 41-minute video, The Giverny Document (Single Channel), which combined Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) with a 16mm film of the artist in New York, walking in Central Park and stopping Black women and girls on West 116th and Malcolm X to ask, “Do you feel safe?” Most recently, Gary premiered a three-channel variation of The Giverny Document (Single Channel) for the installation, The Giverny Suite (2020), with objects that situate the video within Gary’s immediate, physical and psychological environment during the summer of 2016. As the projections illuminate the otherwise static objects, the installation highlights the contrast between the multigenerational and transnational conversations that Gary initiates in The Giverny Document (2019) against the overlapping timelines of European art history and French colonial politics.
In The Giverny Suite (2020), the floor-to-ceiling three-channel video plays across from two still-life arrangements on the floor. In the middle of the gallery is a modern Louis XV style sofa balanced on three legs. Gary’s revival sofa strikes an imperial chord—particularly in light of the archival footage of Haitian dancers, Fred Hampton, and the US drone strikes—that draws parallels between multiple related histories of state violence against people of color and 21st-century US imperial economic foreign policy. The revival style reaches back to the golden age of French furniture circa 18th-century imperial France. The floral motifs, exposed wood, and continuous frame of the sofa are echoes of the graceful and fanciful trends characteristic of the Rococo and its revivals. During the peak of plantation slavery in the French colonies, from 1730 to about 1760, artists designed more comfort into the crown’s interior design and incorporated playful, decorative embellishments that were ripe entertainment for a thrilling turn about the room. In the 1820s, the Rococo revival emerged as a pan-European trend that blended various decorative motifs—Greco-Roman classicism, Rococo frivolity, and Gothic drama—into a symbol of white European national identity. Ironically, the 19th-century revival style celebrated the artifacts of a monarchy that the masses had deposed 30 years earlier, and the revival style continued to evolve as an expression of the origins, wealth, and power that defined colonial mythologies of whiteness.
Cut short, the back leg is the strangest part of Gary’s sofa. With its weight on its back leg it looks as if it were frozen in air—floating, sinking, listing, bucking—or like a play on linear perspective, its skewed shape in proportion to a foreshortened drawing. As a metaphor for linear perspective, Gary’s modification nods to the African and Black artists who shaped modern art while parodying the limited perspective of the Eurocentric worldview. The cockeyed sofa also activates and amplifies Gary’s conversations with women of color about their experiences of violence and safety. The modified couch has ousted the proverbial Odalisque—references Gary makes explicit with footage of herself modeling in Giverny I (Négresse Impériale)—and shifts the narrative from one of dominance and submission to one of transcendence and affirmation. In this complex conversation across time, the lopsided sofa asks audiences how the social and historical reality of The Giverny Suite compares with their sense of the here and now. Gary razes derivative historical narratives and turns archival rubble into a question of who stands witness to the chaos of the present and where we begin to process the past.