Video Art by Women of Color: American Gurl Wakes Up from the American Dream
Across a prismatically eclectic selection of eight new and historical works of video art by women of color, American Gurl takes an unflinching, multidimensional look at Black feminine experience within the hierarchies of the American Dream. Through stylistically diverse works from long-form interview to cognitive manifesto, digital collage, performance-based short film, and starkly conceptual music video, the exhibition departs from a paradox at the heart of our society — how the perspectives of women of color are both central to and marginalized within American culture.
Carrie Mae Weems : Afro-Chic , 2009-10. Installation view, American Gurl presented by Womxn in Windows, Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles (Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo: Keith Lubow)
Organized at Hauser & Wirth’s downtown location, the exhibition is presented by Womxn in Windows — an ongoing cross-platform curatorial project whose mission is to support global video art, film, and performance by women of color, and whose efforts you may have seen in storefronts and other unconventional settings in Los Angeles over the past several years. This iteration of the project is co-curated by its founder Zehra Zehra and music/video artist Kilo Kish, who has previously exhibited with Womxn in Windows and whose musical work included in the show inspired its overall curation.
This exhibition includes artists Lorna Simpson, Martine Syms, Carrie Mae Weems, Ayanna Dozier, Ja’Tovia Gary, Kilo Kish, Savanah Leaf, and LaJuné McMillian in collaboration with Marguerite Angelica Monique Hemmings — an intergenerational group whose diversity in scope demonstrates that the Black female experience is itself not a monolithic construct, but rather a nuanced ecosystem of its own. Such perspectives are essential to any true understanding of how American society views the ideas of, “beauty, success, freedom, and power” that are under scrutiny in their frames.
Give yourself time, as it takes about 80 minutes to see the entire line-up, in an experience whose differences in length and mood create both irregular rhythms in pacing and fascinating juxtapositions in emotion. Depending on where in the loop you arrive, you might be kicking off with Kish’s keystone selection, Death Fantasy, 2022 (2:10 min), a simple but affecting music video whose symbolism and lyrics are a pretty straightforward indictment of the violence and confusion sowed by late-stage capitalism against the Black (female) body — but it’s also a memorable song.
Martine Syms: Meditation , 2021. Installation view, ‘American Gurl’ presented by Womxn in Windows, Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles (Courtesy the artist and Bridget Donahue. Photo: Keith Lubow)
Or maybe you’ll land on Martine Syms’ Meditation, 2021 (4:20 minutes), a send-up of mindfulness so perfect it soars beyond parody to a place of deep knowledge impartation. A chic cartoon yogini avatar guides a thought experiment on deep attention and embodied presence, rich coming from a short, fast-edit digital video collage, and yet also full of earnest appeals to the viewer/listener to redirect their energies toward places of more enduring inner and natural serenity.
After that, things get a little heavier. Savanah Leaf’s run, 2023 (9:06 minutes) and Lorna Simpson’s The Institute, 2007 (5:13 minutes) frame discourses about the Black female body within the lexicon of anatomical and neurological science. In Leaf’s work, an athletic woman is fitted with diodes and sensors and instructed to run in place. Its slow-motion scan lends a sinister quality that one cannot quite place; it presents as clinical, but at a certain point a shift to real discomfiture in the viewer becomes unavoidable. Similarly, Simpson’s work presents vintage footage of what was probably meant to be feel-good education efforts for students with special needs; in this case, extreme unease with the racial dynamics on screen and the systems in which it exist(ed) sets in from the start.
Ja’Tovia Gary: Quiet As It’s Kept, 2023 . Installation view, ‘American Gurl’ presented by Womxn in Windows, Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles (Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery. Photo: Keith Lubow)
Ja’Tovia Gary’s Quiet As It’s Kept, 2023 (26:00 minutes) juxtaposes historical footage, interview elements with the elevated tone of a PBS special, and online cullings to create a fascinating montage bringing the meanings and motivations of The Bluest Eye into unexpectedly close contact with the contemporary conversation around Black hair and skin, all balancing on the fulcrum of academic discourse on identity and empowerment of individuals in community. It’s a lot, but that’s the point. Equally unafraid of the metaverse of muchness is the visually surreal treatise Antidote, 2020 (21:38 minutes) in which LaJuné McMillian and Marguerite Hemmings co-create an entire alternative cosmology that posits honoring the ancestors by relentlessly pursuing both personal happiness and universal liberation.
Carrie Mae Weems’ Afro-Chic, 2009-10 (5:00 minutes) and Ayanna Dozier’s Forever Your Girl, 2022 (7:35 minutes) each in their way explore constructs, projections, and appropriations of BIPOC female beauty, deploying visually grabby tropes of exaggerated sex appeal to create unnerving and unstable dialectic critiques in the poppiest of pop culture spaces. A retro-fabulous catwalk fashion show motif that includes both Black femmes absolutely owning their physicality and power — right alongside white models rocking Black hairstyles. It starts out jazzy but ends with questioning everything. Dozier’s leggy woman in a shiny, slinky nightlife outfit and light-up lucite heels plays with a sidewalk children’s carousel ride. It’s cheeky and subversive at first, great fun to imagine right-wing heads exploding all over the place, but it soon grows unexpectedly unsettling, as it becomes harder for her to balance and hang on to the ride. As the tiny horses go round and round, we all get dizzy together. In the end, our own nostalgia for “simpler times,” or the “wonder of childhood,” has taken a turn. As with everything in this powerful show, everything is first itself, and then a metaphor.
American Gurl is on view at 901 E. Third St., downtown, through Aug. 20; free; hauserwirth.com.