The Evolving Visual Multitudes of Ja'Tovia Gary

In a new conversation, the artist talks about her new film, her multidisciplinary work, the influence of Toni Morrison, and more.
Ruun Nuur

Jatovia Gary

Ja'Tovia Gary. Photograph by Ciara Elle Bryant. Image courtesy of the artist.

Despite being one of the most prolific American authors of the last century, Toni Morrison’s adaptations have routinely been labeled as inadequate to the original text. Deeply rich in prose with an intimate fondness of colloquialism, Morrison’s oeuvre offers an acceptance to “transfigure the complexity and wealth of Afro-American culture into a language worthy of the culture.”

It’s only justified that Morrison’s innovation in language be reconjured in the cinematic form by one who acknowledges its chimeric qualities. In Quiet as It’s Kept, the latest film by Ja’Tovia Gary, the director explores the magic and might of Morrison’s 1970 debut novel, The Bluest Eye, and refuses the label of adaptation.

Exploring themes of African spirituality, desirability, internet culture, and visceral motifs that are rendered into its literal celluloid fabric, Quiet as It’s Kept is an organic progression of one of the most electrifying visual artists working today.

Continuing her laser-sharp focus on evacuating and honoring the lives and legacies of Black women, Gary’s new work is a tremendous collage of video materials. Sources include archival interviews with Morrision and Lil’ Kim, original footage of scholar and renown Lukumi priest Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, infamous memes of Azealia Banks, videos by TikTok user KHAENOTBAE, vintage shots of Hollywood child-star Shirley Temple, nods to the Pentecostal church that Gary was raised in, Haitian-American dancer Bianca Melidor, and videos of the filmmaker herself.

Trained as a documentary filmmaker at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Gary’s background includes acting at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which produced the likes of Erykah Badu and Norah Jones, mirrors that of Kept’s main muse, Toni Morrision, who also performed as an actor in the Howard University Players.

Gary has been building on an already impressive oeuvre that manages to take up space in both cinemas as well as GLAM institutions (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) and boasts credits including An Ecstatic Experience (2015) and The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019), with accolades from Harvard University, Sundance Institute, and most recently a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship. But perhaps one of the most special of her labels is that of founding members of New Negress Film Society, a collective that emphasizes the power of collectivizing amongst Black women and non-binary filmmakers to reimagine cultural productions and communal power. Her identity as a Black-Southern-queer femme bleeds into her creative expression as a multidisciplinary artistic practitioner. Gary employs a utilitarian approach to touching film through handmade direct animation, painting and etching onto 16mm film, chopping and screwing archival materials, performance, editing, and more.

The artist has proven herself time and time again as a renegade cinematic experimenter who centers Black women as the nucleus of their own lens. It is a precious yet precarious placement that leaves no room for critiques of conceit, but rather moves towards self-actualization, a radical act for a peoples whose positionality in respect to the camera has historically been used as a tool of ethnographic exploitation.

In an age where the proliferation of cinema and its technological tools has yet to catch up to the literacy of the visual medium, Kept challenges viewers to be able to simultaneously read the image and clock its text.

I spoke with Gary over the phone after she had returned home to Dallas after a nearly month-long stay in New York where she installed and had public engagements around You Smell like Outside…, an exhibition that ran at Paula Cooper Gallery in February and March where Quiet as It’s Kept was shown on a 24-hour loop. Ever the busy bee, she’s also hosting her first solo exhibition, I KNOW IT WAS THE BLOOD, opening at Dallas Museum of Art, her beloved hometown, on April 23rd.

Generous and generative in dialogue, we discussed the paradox of modern visual literacy and language and of course, Toni, Toni, Toni.  

Quiet as It's Kept (Ja'Tovia Gary, 2023) at the You Smell Like Outside... installation. Image courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery.

NOTEBOOK: What made you gravitate towards The Bluest Eye? And was there a level of difficulty with sticking to that novel rather than the abundance that Toni Morrision has left behind?

JA’TOVIA GARY: It was actually easier to stick with one thing. I find that as an artist, sometimes when you give yourself a boundary, you're able to unleash within that space.

I have a collaborator who is an illustrator and for years they only drew in black and white. They felt like if they could master their technique within the monochromatic space it would allow them to focus. They could really extend the possibilities of their creative potentials within this one arena. Once that time was over, they could unleash themselves and introduce color. It's intentional focusing or narrowing and I felt that same way with this text. But you're right, we could have gone a number of directions.

We could have just made a whole show [You Smell like Outside…] about Toni Morrison, where we touched on all the books, but it felt more deliberate to zero in on this particular text. This was the first book I read by Morrison and the first book that Morrison wrote. I remember being immediately struck. As someone who is a dark-skinned femme, who was at one point a young girl who was not treated with the utmost care, who had to kind of fend for themselves often—I understood the reality presented in the story. I understood this portrait of girlhood that she was painting. I've been both Claudia and Pecola and Pauline. I understood the experiences and the language. For me, it's a book that I have returned to over and over not just because the prose is so beautiful, but because it feels so familiar.

What does Baldwin say? “You feel like you're the only one suffering in your life and then you pick up a book and you read” [from an interview in Life magazine in 1963]. You realize, I am not the only person who is struggling and so for me, The Bluest Eye was that. I think that many people understand the power of this book, which is why it has been censored so many times. But I think if you are a teacher and you're teaching this work to young people, it's so important because of its transformative potential.

There are people who might be experiencing what these main characters have experienced and what that does is open up the space for conversation and then action. There are people who did not have the experiences of being a young Black girl in America, but who probably could really resonate with the themes presented in this book. So I think it's really vital to revisit these foundational texts, and this is one of them for me.

I don't know if it's my favorite Morrison text because there's just so many. But it's the one that was so deeply felt.

NOTEBOOK: I wanna share this Toni quote that I always go back to and I think it makes sense with you in it she says: “In my work, no matter where it's set … the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.”  Another point of connection between you and Morrision is this investment in telling stories away from the coast, for Toni it’s Ohio but for you it's your home state of Texas and the South and you’ve also made a deliberate choice to return. How has that homecoming been for you and your creative process?

GARY: I really love that quote, and thank you for sharing it with me because it really makes a lot of sense in that Morrison was one of the first artists that gave me permission to be really focused on what is central to me. That the specific position that I hold in society, whether it be a geographical one or a sociopolitical one, that my position can be central. And the experiences and wisdom that are consequences of that positioning are a rich source from which to tell stories and make meaning.

The fact that she's able to locate a place right in the beginnings of her imagination, in the beginnings of her creative process, that is key.

For me, returning home has in many ways recalibrated my creative process and potential because I have had to come back to that point of origin. In many ways it's been incredibly destabilizing, but in other ways it has been very clarifying. All of the pomp and circumstances, the glitter of the metropolis, and the champagne openings, all kind of fall away and you're left to deal with who you're looking at in the mirror and the people who you come from and the blood that runs through your veins.

That blood, that lineage, is the point of origin for my creative process. Much of the work is incredibly personal, biographical in an oblique manner or auto ethnographic. This might explain why it takes the time it takes to come into fruition. And why it's important for the concepts, materials, and observations to be so deliberately specific. That audience helps determine the content, context, and contours of the work. But when I come home and place myself within a Southern context I am having to recalibrate the reasons why I am doing what I am doing. It is very much a practice of checking in with self and community.

I come home and I go to my mama's house and it's very much, yes, ma'am or no, ma'am. These folks do not care about who has written about my work; they think it's very nice and they'll clap and they think it's cute, but like there is an order, right? And this order structures how we relate to one another. They know me as Tavie, they don't know me as Ja’Tovia Gary [the artist]—like sure, that's great but there is a humility and an intimacy to the relational dynamic that demands the truth. Who are you behind the public persona that you’ve crafted to protect yourself? Having to come back and face one’s point of origin helps propel me into this next phase of my life and practice. And for that I'm grateful.

It's been clarifying, like a reset button but a reset is not always smooth. A reset is not always enjoyable. But sometimes it’s necessary to be planted back into the soil from which we emerged.

Quiet as It's Kept (2023). Courtesy of the artist.

NOTEBOOK: I consider you as the ultimate multi-hyphenate. I'm really curious how you identify yourself as an artist. Do you claim a specific title first like documentarian, visual artist, animator, or editor? All of it at once, or not at all?

GARY: I am all of those things and so much more. Many folks may not be aware that I was trained in documentary filmmaking and despite the works being formally promiscuous there is almost always a documentary convention present in the films.

If you think about Quiet as It's Kept, we've got an interview with Mama Koko [Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie] throughout that anchors the film. This is a call back to that documentary training. Much of the film practice is an exercise on how far we can stretch the boundaries and definitions of what constitutes a documentary. I consider myself a multidisciplinary artist though. Film is just one of the disciplines. I prefer to avoid classification, categorization, and the impulse to index according to genre but that's how the world works. That's how capitalism works. We need to be able to categorize so that we can figure out how to market and sell. But for most of my practice, I have been disregarding and attempting to break out of these boxes.

I do make films but I also create sculpture and every once in a while they might all appear in an installation together and I might be performing in said film. So yes, I'm all of those things. You know, I think that the great thing about being Black and being a woman or femme identified and being queer is that expansiveness is the name of the game. It's not ever just one thing. It’s all of these things. Many valences, multitudes.

NOTEBOOK:  You’re someone who very effortlessly navigates both the film world and GLAM? One already seems hellish enough…

GARY: Between you and me, they are definitely dangers and traps in both! I'm so glad that from the outside it looks like I'm navigating it seamlessly because it definitely feels a bit like a treacherous tightrope walk sometimes. Luckily I walk with a coterie of fearless ones alongside me. They shore me up. But there's so many rules in these respective worlds. For example, everybody wants premiere status so I'm having to really jockey and navigate for positions at festivals while also considering the exhibition schedule. If I have already screened Quiet as It’s Kept in a museum exhibition or in a gallery then I have to make the case [at a film festival] that it’s necessary to play in a theatrical space because it is now a different experience and oftentimes a different audience.

We can't be sure that just because it played at Paula Cooper for a month on loop, that everybody who needed to see it saw it. We can also not be sure that it's going to be the same sort of presentation if it plays at a major festival in New York City or anywhere in the country. The films should have as wide a range of an audience as possible. So why are we placing such stringent stipulations on premier status? If we want to encourage folks to come out and see cinema, if we want to encourage continued growth of this medium and this quote unquote industry then why the rules surrounding exclusivity? We see this from not just the film space, but also the gallery and museum space. So it's really a lot for me to have to strategize around where I'm going to place the work first, because that could have reverberating effects on where the film could play subsequently. It's been a little bit of a dance.

It's really important to be able to flex in all these spaces because for so long we were hindered. We were completely shut out. There are really incredible Black women artists who are generations above me who did not have the opportunities that so many of the younger artists in my generation and those coming up behind us do have for exhibition. I wanna be able to come into those places and take up space. It is due to our foremothers and it's due to us who are coming up. So run me my things!

NOTEBOOK:  Has there been any solutions after making that case?

GARY: It's constant political strategizing. I don't know if there is one solution because each organization, whether they be a festival or gallery or streaming, everybody has their own policies. You might have to take a L every once in a while.

You have to decide what's important to you. Everybody's journey in terms of making their films and getting their films seen are going to vary vastly, as will the director’s relationships with these organizations. What we can do is give as much information as we can to each other about how we are navigating these spaces. Try to be as transparent as we can with one another so that we can be the most equipped we can be when we go into these negotiations. So I wouldn't say that there is one solution that we have arrived at that allows us to play everywhere especially with films as unique as mine. These films are so strange and are in many ways insurgent in their form, but also in their content.

You Smell Like Outside... installation. Image courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery.

NOTEBOOK:  You’ve mentioned your films follow the Black music tradition, meaning it follows a pattern of cyclical series of looping, almost like a moving image jam session. Can you tell me more about that?

GARY: You have to think about folks like Arthur Jafa who has spoken a lot about this kind of Black visual intonation. But also my own experiences as a Black Southern person who grew up within this Pentecostal church tradition, like the Church of God and Christ [COGIC] and I’m specific with the denomination because we could just say the “Black church” but under that umbrella are so many different variations and expressions.

I come from a long line of preachers and evangelists and prophets and people who sing, people who tell stories, orators.  Folks who would go and preach the gospel on the street, passing out tracks as they call 'em, which are basically like little pamphlets that have biblical scriptures and witnessing to people and trying to, you know, bring people into the flock.

This is how I grew up, I literally grew up not being able to listen to secular music. That's how deep it was. That's how pious and religious my family was. I had to sneak and listen to Brandy in the nineties and all the good stuff happening [at that time]. It was like illegal contraband in our home.

This is good and bad. I'm not ashamed of this. It was in some ways a constraining and authoritarian way of living because it's a hierarchical one. It's one that's based on regression and repression, but at the same time, it's one of complete and total abandon and spiritual ecstasy when we're talking about cultural production. I'm thinking specifically of the music but also the preaching, it is storytelling and performance. I don't agree with a lot of things that are coming out of many people's pulpits, or the legacies of abuse and patriarchy, but a lot of that music and a lot of that storytelling tradition has laid the groundwork for how I see and feel, how I move about structuring narrative.

So yes, it is cyclical in that it's not necessarily a linear experience, although there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. But it's more about returning back to structural elements that have presented themselves earlier in the piece. You give yourself a boundary that you don't cross. And in that boundary, you're free to improvise. You're free to go left, right, up, down. You're free to go all over, but you always have a place to return to, a cyclical element that's going to be repeating. Repetition can invoke trancelike states, or experiences of ecstasy and transcendence. Repetition is also an integral component in the practice of learning and memory.

Oftentimes music is a kind of foundational structuring principle. Other times you might see this direct animation element as something that reappears cyclically, and it's binding the work together. For example, in Quiet as It’s Kept, you see this reoccurring blue abstract motif. Sometimes it's in the shape of an eye. This recurring visual motif acts as a protective amulet, a kind of a muscle or fascia that is holding everything together, sometimes it's contracting and sometimes it's expanding, speeding up or slowing down. It holds everything together throughout the film, so no matter where we go, we can go anywhere, but at some point we know that blue is going to come back up and it's going to ground us.

I see this project and all of my films as a kind of meandering of the mind. I'm grabbing the audience member by the hand, and we're taking a kind of Alice in Wonderland journey through my psychological and emotional landscape.

NOTEBOOK:  In Quiet as It’s Kept, you’ve continued your deployment of the archive and meme culture in a way that's become synonymous with your visual grammar. I have an interpretation of it but curious what memes mean to you?

GARY: Toni Morrison has a brilliant Nobel Prize speech that’s on YouTube and it's basically one of the inspirations for You Smell Like Outside as a whole. Both the film and the show are about language and literacy.

She's talking about narrative, and about language, and she makes this distinction between a living and a dead language. And she's careful to define a dead language, not as a language that is no longer written or spoken, but a language that is a tool for power. Where despots hide and how they use it to foreclose upon knowledge.  So a dead language is a censoring and censored language. It's a disabled and disabling language. It shuts down discourse. What's happening in Florida, what's happening in Texas with banning books, banning the rigorous teaching of American History, banning gender non conforming expressions of the self. That's the death of language. Morrison says a dead language is statist, it's theistic, it's racist, it's sexist, it's the tool of power.

Whereas a living language, it opens up the possibilities for knowledge. It opens up the possibilities for continued exploration and continued connection. She posits the idea that narrative can be radical. And I began to consider  “well, what does that mean when we think about cinematic language? What is dead and what is alive within the realm of cinematic language? Over the course of the last three years and specifically during lockdown I've been thinking quite a bit about internet culture and social media. And I feel like there's definitely a bunch of dead language happening online.

At the same time, there’s also spaces on the internet where language is alive, where people are really trying to push the boundaries about how they can get ideas across, how they can tell stories on these apps or on the timeline. They're attempting to disrupt the power of the algorithm. Or harness the algorithm for their own purposes. So when I think about Black folks, specifically Black queer folks, Black women on these apps, I feel like we are actually pushing culture. We're pushing language to its boundaries using these new tools.

I think that there are certain fundamental elements of culture and public life that the Internet has kind of supplanted or rendered obsolete. Also, the internet is just so contemporary and I'm a contemporary artist and this is visual culture. How can I weave this into the language of cinema in a way that is fresh, but also incendiary with a little bit of fire and humor? I wanna be able to still critique these tools.

Quiet as It's Kept (Ja'Tovia Gary) at the You Smell Like Outside... installation. Image courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery.

NOTEBOOK:  My reading of it is that the language is easily legible between Black women, specifically those of us online, almost like you're speaking directly to Black viewers in this new digital vernacular that nobody understands but us. And even when your art is placed in a gallery that can be exclusionary there’s a private dialogue happening that nobody else is privy to…

GARY: Thank you. To me it is a very important function of the work. A friend said this about literacy in all iterations, “did you read the text? Or do you know the shorthand? Are you online? Do you follow these people?” It's a contemporary hieroglyphic. “...the girls who get it, get it.”

NOTEBOOK:  I read that you are also actively creating an archive that you’re utilizing in the feature documentary that you’re working on, Evidence of Things Not Seen. How’s that been going?

GARY: It's going well. I'm not as vocal about it as I was in the past, which was good. I am trying to, I guess in some way, protect [it] but yes, it's like a slow cooker, and so when you're taking a long time to make things people be like, ‘where's that film? I thought you were making a film’ You know, all of that stuff. And it's like, well, not every film is gonna be one that you crank out in a year and a half or two years.

We're talking about a memoir film here. I mean, can you even make a memoir if you haven't reached 40 yet? And I'll reach 40 in a year and a half. So it's like, okay, finally, you know, maybe it's worth it. Maybe I have approached the acceptable period of time to where I can actively look back and say, this is what I have been through, this is what I know.

This is my life and this is what I think. But yeah, it's a kind of long haul project to where at first I was not actively creating an archive. I was just going back and using footage that I had already filmed about and with my family. I had this footage of myself filming my mother in 2011 and I was like, this would be great to use, but even before that there was a bunch of archival footage that my mother gave me that she got from her aunt, my great-aunt. One evening I’m interviewing her for the film and she goes into her garage and she pulls out about six or seven canisters of Super 8mm footage that she herself shot! She used to film our family in Arkansas, Texas, and California during the late sixties and seventies on a Super 8 camera.

So in many ways, yes, I'm able to kind of tap into this really wonderful tradition and treasure trove of material that I have been gifted. I didn't necessarily think here's an archive I'm creating, it really was just here's this work that I'm doing. And the projects became bigger and I'm able to fold them into one another, which I'm grateful for. In addition to the family home videos , I also collect 16mm films, all types of educational films, vintage Hollywood stuff, commercials. I'm always kind of on the hunt.

NOTEBOOK: Asking a filmmaker what’s next can be so ineffective but I am genuinely curious what next’s in the grand scheme of your cinematic life. What do you hope to see, to make, people you’d like to collaborate with?

GARY: You’ll have to wait and see!

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