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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Features Reviews

Glimmer in the Grit

Sitting with Ja'Tovia Gary's everyday sublime.

By Yume Murphy

October 2, 2023

Concentrations 64: Ja’Tovia Gary, I KNOW IT WAS THE BLOOD, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, 2023, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art.

They say everything is bigger in Texas, but they don’t tell you how time seems to move quite differently in the Lone Star State.

Home to a community of artists that lays claim to a radically Black avant-garde tradition—such as jazz pianist Robert Glasper and singer Erykah Badu—Texas has some afrofuturist conventions of its very own making. In her latest series of works, Ja’Tovia Gary cements their place in this legacy.

A Dallas native, the filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist, who uses they and she pronouns interchangeably, has always called home to the South, and it calls home to her. The descendant of generations of matriarchs hailing from both Texas and Arkansas, Gary returned to the former in 2019 after nearly two decades in New York City, a journey they would describe as “spirit-led.” African spirituality, Black Southern culture, her upbringing in the Pentecostal church—its preachers, bellowing gospel singers, ritual, and awareness of a transcendent “invisible world”—and her family remain formative source materials for Gary’s ongoing cinematic investigations. These investigations—into Black femme experience, interiority, and inheritance, alongside both personal and public archives—demonstrate Gary’s ongoing autobiographical instinct. When we meet at the Dallas Museum, she tells me that she’s been visiting since she was a child. “I remember seeing my first Frida Kahlo here.” In this way, her presentation at the museum is a long time in the making. It’s a homecoming.

Installation view of Precious Memories, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020, photo by Steven Probert, courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Curated by Anna Katherine Brodbeck after being originated by curator Vivian Crockett, the solo exhibition of the artist’s recent works, Concentrations 64: Ja’Tovia Gary, I KNOW IT WAS THE BLOOD, is presented in the museum’s Hoffman Galleries as both memoir and homage to Gary’s matrilineal legacies. Across two rooms, the five multimedia works on view—neon and mobile sculptures, paintings, and films that pull from Gary’s family archives—sing a resonant hymn, emitting a haloed pink aura punctuated by flashes of red across screens. The title, I KNOW IT WAS THE BLOOD, references a gospel song made popular in Black churches. While the lyrics proclaim a devotion to Jesus Christ and his ultimate sacrifice, the works on view conjure a certain reverence for Gary’s family members, their shared knowledge, and generational wounds. For Gary, who calls to her orishas and egun throughout the works, the exhibition title is a truth. The blood is divine.

Upon entering the first gallery, Precious Memories (2020), a sculptural installation composed of a tower of monitors set in a staged living room environment, takes center stage. The tower stacks three off-balanced monitors atop one another, with natural materials—cotton, moss, and helichrysum flower—wedged between each TV. The topmost one plays archival footage of a soundie, a short musical film format popularized in the 1940s that provided Black performers a unique opportunity to be featured in films (and for archivists, a rare form of documentation of African American performers). In this instance, Louis Armstrong performs a dramatized rendition of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”—a jazz song whose original lyrics reminisce on an idyllic South while giving in to racist stereotypes—alongside a cast that includes a mammy figure and a Sambo figure dancing with an oversized chicken leg. Here, Gary has inscribed red etched, painted, and scratched illustrations that resemble blood and splatter onto the surface of the film, emphasizing the violence present in the soundie’s representation of Black figures. Beneath, Gary memorializes the death of her stepfather with footage of his funeral service, a morose film that documents their family in their church and as they walk back to their cars. At the bottom, Gary abstracts a porn film into a pixelated symphony of patterns, movement, and light, any sex acts illegible to an untrained eye. The three-channel installation is spotlighted by two stage lamps. Nearby, a portrait of Gary’s mother sits on a table beside a La-Z-Boy recliner, reminiscent of the one Gary grew up with in her childhood home, [they tell me], facing the leaning tower of screens. The installation’s mise-en-scène recalls a sort of tired homeyness; a familiar sense of comfort and nostalgia arises with the vacancy of the worn chair.

Placing the viewer in a surrealist construction of Gary’s childhood home, and by extension their childhood self, Precious Memories meditates on how trauma—generational, institutional, and gender-based—shapes our memory and ability to cope. Notably, the three video loops emerge from three distinct generations through which Black Americans found representation in film, for better or worse: the early twentieth century, the dawn of the new millennium, and most recently, the digital age. This work also draws on three distinct filmic genres: the musical film, home movie, and internet pornography. Gary, who in her work imposes an oppositional gaze, affirms Black feminist spectatorship with this juxtaposition.1 She offers a sort of visual pleasure in deconstructing the violence of the original texts by connecting historical and personal wounds. Her interventions, the illustrated and experimental inscription into the surface of the films, create visual metaphors that acknowledge the harm enacted in racist and fetishistic representations. The installation offers a rare instance of an immersive and affective visualization of Black femme experiences and, most importantly, Gary’s interiority. Precious Memories invites you to take a seat in her place.

Installation view of Precious Memories, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020, photo by Steven Probert, courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

In conversation with Precious Memories is Citational Ethics (Saidiya Hartman, 2017) (2020), the first in Gary’s ongoing Citational Ethics series. Lovingly, the neon sculpture reads, “Care is the antidote to violence,” a quote from theorist and writer Saidiya Hartman, from her conversation with Black feminist writer Christina Sharpe.2 The quote responds to Sharpe’s critical text In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, framing “wake work,” which can be understood as the labor of affirming one’s identity and independence in the wake of slavery, as a form of care.3 The neon sculpture shapes two warm hands as an offering, with “care” written in sweet script and “violence” in all caps. The sculpture is a glowing prayer and reminder that a touch of tenderness can go far in working with historical wounds in the archive, and even Black grief.

In the adjoining room, additional footage from Gary’s family archive comes to the fore. Her great-aunt Mary Lee Dunn, more affectionately known as Aunt Mae, captured an incredible collection of films depicting Gary’s family on Super 8mm film throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Largely intact, the footage on view is excerpted from Gary’s forthcoming feature film, a memoir currently titled Evidence of Things Not Seen, which gathers family interviews, animation, and archival footage. Gary has continued to work on this project for over a decade.

Installation view of Citational Ethics, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2020, photo by Steven Probert, courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Central in this room is In my mother’s house there are many, many . . . (2023), a newly commissioned work that reimagines the armillary sphere, an ancient wayfinding tool used to navigate the sea and cosmos. At almost 12 feet tall, the revolving sculpture possesses a monumental gravity, pulling you in to look at its structure, the imagery projected onto it, and its movement. The sphere is made of thousands of cotton balls, with stems attached, onto which Gary projects a montage of matriarchal figures, including herself, her mother, grandmother, and aunties: all Southerners who have lived and continue to exist in the wake of slavery. Gary tells me that many of these women have worked on cotton plantations, while reminding me that cotton remains a salve to her and her ancestors. The cotton plant has many medicinal properties, after all. In my mother’s house there are many, many . . . gives thanks to Gary’s matriarchal lineage and legacy, and lovingly restores Gary’s Aunt Mae’s extraordinary footage.

Orbiting the sphere are more works—a multichannel film and multimedia portraits. Flanking the sculpture on each side are projections of Mitochondrial Montage (2023), an autobiographical film. The nine-minute film fills the rooms with the sound of Black worship. The film collages clips from Gary’s time in Ghana, footage excerpted from Evidence of Things Not Seen—including portraits of the artist and family members—and a video of a gospel choir singing. There isn’t really a linear progression or narrative offered by the film, yet movement—Gary’s dancing, heart-shaped illustrations, and rhythmic layering of audio-visual material—signals a kind of biological worldbuilding. We are privileged with an excerpt of the artist’s memory, inherited. The title of the work references a part of the organic cell structure: the mitochondria, small structures that are responsible for producing energy for the cell to function. It’s also a metaphor for the celluloid film used in the Super 8 films. Just as blood is shared in her family, Aunt Mae’s celluloid lives on in Gary’s works. Cast aside painted, glowing portraits of Gary’s mother and father, Mitochondrial Montage conjures the spirits that make Gary.

Concentrations 64: Ja’Tovia Gary, I KNOW IT WAS THE BLOOD, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, 2023, courtesy Dallas Museum of Art.

Throughout the exhibition, the autobiographical is mirrored by the matrilineal. Across both rooms, the work takes focus on maternal figures in Gary’s life: her mother, grandmother, great-aunt, and great-grandmother. Fittingly, the exhibition flyer features an image of Gary’s mother, a still drawn from Evidence of Things Not Seen. Hand cocked on hip, she casts a knowing look—“bombastic side eye,” so to speak. Here, Gary’s focus on matrilineal relationships recalls the work of sculptor and filmmaker Camille Billops, whose documentary films Finding Christa (1991) and Suzanne, Suzanne (1982) focus on relationships between women in her family (including her estranged daughter) and use matrilineal histories as grounds for the unleashing of generational trauma. In Billops’s works, matrilineal legacies foreshadow a fatalistic view of her family, doomed to live in the shadows of domestic violence, trauma, and addiction. In their work, Gary offers a distinctly sentimental subjectivity that expresses a future-facing Black femme interiority—a caring gaze, a hand, an embrace, a kiss blown to the women that came before her. Here, the matrilineal—both motherhood and daughterhood—presides as a guarding entity in Gary’s reflection of her life.

Still, Gary’s orientation to the past is not unique. They are in conversation with a generation of Black thinkers and creatives who are interested in expanding the genre of afrofuturism to encapsulate interstellar, restorative futures. In addition to Sharpe and Hartman, Gary names filmmakers Cauleen Smith and Arthur Jafa as figures whose works have deeply influenced her practice. In conversation with these thinkers, writers, and artists, Gary creates an equally auto-ethnographic and experimental cinema, conjuring the dead and the living in attunement with one another.

From Quiet as It’s Kept (2023), dir. Ja’Tovia Gary, courtesy of the artist.

The first time I encountered Gary’s work was just this year. Tucked into the chapel-like structure that is Paula Cooper’s Chelsea gallery in Manhattan, You Smell Like Outside—a Black Southern phrase most often heard from a mother or grandmother upon retiring home from a long day outside—pronounced a monumental sense of comfort in one’s own skin. The solo exhibition premiered Quiet as It’s Kept (2021), Gary’s cinematic response to Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, which had its (cinematic) world premiere at BlackStar Film Festival and is on view at MoMA this fall. It became apparent to me then that Gary is interested in the sublime that exists in the everyday—the glimmer in the grit. There, and in Dallas, their colloquial artistic impulse becomes undeniable.

For as much as Gary’s work has utilized formal conventions learned from their documentary training, they work within a Black avant-garde tradition with an equally critical and reflexive perspective on what it means to be a Black woman today—to feel rooted, to feel safe. In both exhibitions, Gary takes turns of phrase and conjures both interior and relatable Black experiences. Her titling alone is relational—between the words “you” and “I” exists a dialogue negotiating ancestral knowledge, generational trauma, and healing for Gary. A declarative title in all caps, I KNOW IT WAS THE BLOOD, calls out to her kinfolk, their skinfolk, and our shared lamentation of what we most negotiate in the wake of our ancestors’ oppression, wounds, love, and care.

The works confront viewers with the knowledge that some things are inescapable—the weight of motherhood, the fact of living in the wake, the violence of the camera, generational trauma. Not destiny, not necessarily faith, but moments where you are cornered by your very own ghosts, the very facts of your making. Sometimes this necessitates going back to your roots, as Gary returned to Texas. More often, a deep intimacy with the past—with the dead—serves as a reminder of who made you. Upon returning, there is a lesson to be learned: the blood is divine. Here I am reminded by Gary of this essential truth. I know it was the blood.


1. Oppositional gaze, as defined by activist bell hooks in Black Looks: Race and Representation, is a mode of looking utilized by black female spectators to critically engage cinematic works, neither identifying with “the phallocentric gaze nor the construction of white-womanhood as lack.” bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992).

2. In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe, Barnard Center for Research on Women, 2017,

3. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).