Cauleen Smith: Mutualities
On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
February 17, 2020 – January 31, 2021
2020 was the year of lists. Anti-racist reading lists. Lists containing information for mutual aid organizations. Lists replete with wellness resources. As the year concluded, we encountered another set of lists: those that highlighted the “best” movies, television shows, and books, as if to hold onto what was good about 2020 before ushering in 2021.
Cauleen Smith’s Mutualities, a show on Afro-diasporic histories and futurities, offers viewers another opportunity to engage the form of a list and its potential by presenting a selection of artworks that gather the works of Black feminist writers, activists, and spiritual leaders who urge viewers to create new Black worlds. The exhibition brings together two films, Sojourner (2018) and Pilgrim (2017), as well as “Firespitters” (2020), a collection of drawings that primarily features Black feminist poetry and stories. Taken together, they comprise Smith’s love letter to Black feminism. This may be Smith’s first solo show, but there is nothing solo about it, as she reveals the ways in which embracing and practicing Black feminism builds powerful collectives.
In preparation for “Firespitters,” part of an ongoing series of gouache-and-graphite drawings, Smith invited a group of poets—Dionne Brand, Natalie Diaz, Krista Franklin, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, among others—to send her two photographs: one where they held a copy of their own book and another where they held a work that was meaningful to them. Smith then illustrated the book covers and the poets’ hands holding them, emphasizing the deeply embodied processes of producing literary works and learning itself. The presence of hands on books such as Brand’s Inventory and Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem gesture to the transformation possible when we hold, which is to say cradle and caress, works that enliven our daily realities and ever-unfolding futures. Smith’s drawings emphasize how visceral reading is: how a single book can alter one’s entire body and orientation to the world. In this series, Gumbs clutches The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Diaz clasps Brand’s Blue Clerk, and Brand grips Sylvia D. Hamilton’s And I Alone Escaped to Tell You. That Diaz holds Brand’s poems and that Brand is featured holding the book of another points to one form of mutuality in the series.
“Firespitters” is an extension of “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989–2019” (2019), for which Smith rendered 30 gouache-and-graphite drawings of literature that have profoundly impacted her, including Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake. “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989–2019”, too, built on a previous project, “Human_3.0 Reading List” (2015)—a set of 57 drawings of book covers each produced on 8 1/2 by 12-inch graph paper using a combination of graphite, watercolor, and acrylic—that Smith made for Black Lives Matter activists in Chicago, which honored Black political thought by bringing together works by C.L.R. James, bell hooks, Harriet Tubman, and many others. None of these series are reading lists like the ones that circulated in 2020. They are more than syllabi meant to be taught. Rather, each represents a complex network of inspirations and affections of life-saving literature.
Sojourner, a 22-minute and 41-second video, follows 12 women as they walk across Los Angeles. The film focuses on Dockweiler State Beach and the Watts Towers, a set of 17 sculptural spires made by Italian American ironworker Simon Rodia from 1921 to 1954. These works survived the Watts Rebellion in 1965 and are identified as symbols of resilience alongside assemblage artist Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, where he built a museum using discarded items. The women in Sojourner carry six bright neon vinyl banners that piece together words from Alice Coltrane, who also went by Swamini Turiyasangitananda in her spiritual life, where she proclaimed: “At dawn, sit at the Feet of Action. At noon, be at the Hand of Might. At eventide, be so big that the sky will learn Sky.” The work underscores important spiritual and creative influences in Smith’s practice: Coltrane, Purifoy, and the 19th-century mystic Rebecca Cox Jackson, who founded a Black Shaker community in Philadelphia.
All of the walking in Sojourner is set to the voices of Sojourner Truth, Alice Coltrane, and The Combahee River Collective Statement, a Black Feminist manifesto issued in 1977. Smith splices scenes of the women’s attentive listening with footage of Chicago-based activists Dr. Barbara Ransby and Charlene Carruthers demonstrating as part of the R3 (Resist. Reimagine. Rebuild.) coalition. The juxtaposition of activism and spirituality generates a powerful context for self-realization and reflection. A sisterhood is borne on screen.
Pilgrim, a 7-minute and 41-second pre-text to Sojourner tells of another journey—that of Smith as she visits Coltrane’s Vedantic Center in Agoura, California; the Watts Towers in Los Angeles; and Jackson’s Watervliet Shaker community in New York. Coltrane’s music infuses each scene while Smith lets viewers into the ashram and Shaker community that formed Coltrane and Jackson’s political and spiritual sensibilities. Here, as in Sojourner, Smith emphasizes place alongside sound and story as central to Black feminist worldmaking.
What kind of world is possible if we listen and learn from Black feminism(s), if we hold dearly and deeply the texts that circulate in Smith’s Mutualities and let ourselves be beholden to their visions? The plurality in the title of Smith’s show—mutualities, not mutuality— suggests that Black feminist artists and the practices they cultivate give way to more than one type of world, more than one way to dream today and every day.