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Observed Online Reviews

Shala Miller’s Epic Odyssey of Black Femme Survival

With ‘Tender Noted’, Miller documents a larger tradition that converts blueness into salvation.

By Shameekia Shantel Johnson

From Shala Miller's Tender Noted (2022/2023), published by Wendy’s Subway. All images courtesy of the artist and Wendy’s Subway, photo by Justin Lubliner

At a time when works by Black femme filmmakers and artists are (re)emerging into prominence, Shala Miller’s book Tender Noted (2023, 2nd edition) is a timely, matter-of-fact ode to the ways in which Black femmes have resurrected themselves from the ashes of love, trauma, and grief.

In remodeling an experience of personal tragedy, Miller documents a larger tradition that converts blueness into salvation. Thus, Tender Noted becomes an epic narrative for survival and expansion, told through a compilation of poetry, plays, photography, film stills, and journal entries.

Self-inflicted scratches become the catalyst for Miller’s introspective journey, as they note the connection between their father’s death, their mother’s internalized sadness, and their time spent enduring abuse from a lover, to a larger tradition of Black fragmentation. Throughout the book, these recurring scratches become a metaphor for visual and sonic distortion: splits in time, identity, and tone. Every shift in pace–between images and writings—is a shift in character and sequence, in which Miller navigates between disparate roles of performer and their true self, between narrative and documentary. In their play, I Can’t Reach The Sugar On My Back: An Anti-Love Song About Love Songs Made With Butter In My Hands And A Dandelion To My Chin, (2017), first mounted at Chicago’s Prop Thtr, three of Miller’s aliases take center stage in a one-act, one-person show: Mrs. Lovely, Cheryl, and Laura. Here, their monologues about love evoke the folksy mannerisms of elders filled with lyrical wisdom, like the stoic women of Toni Morrison’s novels. Their body becomes an echochamber in which personal and ancestral anecdotes collide, like a double exposure of sound and history. One can’t help but wonder if Miller’s plurality is an attempt to create a kind of wholeness from the fractures caused by spiritual and physical mourning.

A spread from the book. It shows two pages tiled with close-up photos of a person's mouth and lips.
From Shala Miller's Tender Noted (2022/2023).

There’s also a cinematic appeal to Tender Noted. Sepia-tone text against white paper maintains the innate intimacy of journal entries and poems, while the pitch-black pages evoke the intensity of film stills and reimagined performances, as Miller shape-shifts throughout the book to empathize with the ways one is failed or saved by love. Arrangements of text and image work harmoniously with the book’s graphic elements, designed by Kyla Arsadjaja, as Miller’s films and performances are reinterpreted to amplify the sonic experience that can be lost when moving images turn still. On the black pages dedicated to their video installation, Something To Do With The Head At The Tail, (2017), blank pages, video stills of Miller and their mother, and installation shots—which initially show the video projected onto a stump of a tree that had fallen from a storm—interchange like cuts between film scenes. White and red text placed at the top of each page act as stage directions for an in-audible experience of Miller singing, noting cues to adjust their pitch before images gradually emerge from darkness. Experiencing this interplay between text and visuals is like witnessing a breath-taking performance; I can feel their voice reverberate from the book and within me. It’s one of the many corporeal aspects of Tender Noted that exudes from the book’s design. Its toffee, soft-shell cover and sanguineous fore edges affirm Miller’s bodily presence, while the photograph Broken Girl Jumping Broken Rope (2021), foreshadows their inner turmoil.

Following Miller’s solo exhibition Obsidian (held at New York’s Lyles and King in January 2023), Genesis (2023) is a three-channel video installation, created in response to Amiri Baraka’s Cellar Vigil (Experimental Death Unit #2) (1966), now on view at Artists Space, in a two-person exhibition featuring fellow artist Malcolm Peacock. On both the page and in the galleries, Miller’s notable alias, Freddie June, comes to life. Upon entering the gallery, I hear their voice echoing throughout the space—sharp yet seductively commanding—pulling me closer into the dark room where their artwork lives. There, videos of Miller’s body are projected onto three clear panels that suspend from the ceiling, almost forming an apex. On each panel, Miller’s signature black-and-white style formulates a ghostly presence as their body blurs beyond recognition. Genesis, much like the scope of Miller’s practice, is an effort to examine the ruins of Black femmehood and revitalize it. 

A spread from the book. It shows a black-and-white close-up image of a person with their hand on their head. On the left is text, it is illegible.
From Shala Miller's Tender Noted (2022/2023), published by Wendy’s Subway.

Now in its second edition, Tender Noted is a book that commands immense vulnerability between the artist and the reader. Even its title performs an emotive role, appearing only once at the close of the book, like an endnote that transports us back to the start of this epic narrative. It’s a final message about being saved by love (and a loved one) that pulled the artist out of the darkness.

Shala Miller’s Tender Noted (2nd edition) is now available from Wendy’s Subway