Mutualities, the multidisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith’s first solo show in New York, will open at the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 17. The exhibition includes two films, Sojourner (2018) and Pilgrim (2017), shown in two installation environments newly created for the Whitney, along with a group of new drawings, collectively titled Firespitters (2020).
Scott Rothkopf, Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, remarked, “We’re delighted to welcome Cauleen Smith back to the Whitney. With their exquisite atmosphere and construction, Sojourner and Pilgrim offer lyrical views of important figures and sites in Black history, and also look toward a shared future. The show builds a beautiful bridge between the other pillars of our spring exhibition program, pointing to the political concerns of Vida Americana and the spiritual uplift of Agnes Pelton.”
Smith (b. 1967)—whose banners were prominently featured at the Museum in the 2017 Whitney Biennial—draws on poetry, science fiction, non-Western cosmologies, and experimental film to create works that reflect on memory and Afro-diasporic histories.
Cauleen Smith is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work draws upon Black radical thought, structural film, poetry, and science fiction. Born in Riverside, California in 1967, she grew up in Sacramento, and earned a B.A. in Cinema from San Francisco State University and an MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater Film and Television. At UCLA, she studied with the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, a group of graduate students who started a Black Cinema movement at the university in the mid-1960s. She has made over 40 films, and her first feature length film, Drylongso (1998), premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival before circulating with acclaim to other film festivals. She has had exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, ICA Philadelphia, MASS MoCA, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the New Museum, New York, the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the Kitchen, New York, and was featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. She is the recipient of numerous awards and residencies including the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2007), the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, Artist Award (2012), the Washington Park Arts Incubator, Arts and Public Life Residency (2013), and the Rauschenberg Residency (2015). She has taught at various universities over the span of the last two decades, and is a Faculty member of Cal Arts School of Art in Los Angeles.
Chrissie Iles, the Whitney’s Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator, who has organized the show with Clémence White, senior curatorial assistant, commented, “We are proud to bring together Cauleen Smith’s films, installations, and drawings in an exhibition that articulates an ethics of care, engagement, and generosity. Each element of the show is experienced through another—books written and chosen by poets invited by the artist appear in delicate gouaches; a film tracing a pilgrimage to spiritual sites is bathed in the colored light of the installation surrounding it. The Museum’s recognition of Smith’s long and deeply engaged practice is underlined by our recent acquisition of both films, Sojourner and Pilgrim, which join her banners already in the Whitney’s collection.”
Unfolding across several important sites in Black spiritual and cultural history, the two films in the exhibition weave together writings by women from different eras, including Shaker visionary Rebecca Cox Jackson, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the Black feminist Combahee River Collective of the 1970s, and experimental-jazz composer and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane, whose music also forms the soundtrack for both films. This gathering of voices enacts a shared Black female subjectivity, the collective strength of which is expressed in Smith’s poetic use of the camera and light as improvisational instruments to reveal how invention, creativity, and generosity can be resources for transformation and regeneration. By placing the title of this exhibition in the plural, Smith draws a connection between the two films while pointing to the idea that what is held in common is never singular.
In Sojourner, a group of women walk in procession through sites including Dockweiler State Beach and Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The women carry translucent orange banners, each emblazoned with part of a text by the jazz composer and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane (1937–2007). Watts Towers, a cluster of seventeen sculptural spires, served as a symbol of hope and regeneration after surviving the 1965 Watts Rebellion unscathed. Smith locates a similar spirit in assemblage artist Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California. The women end their procession there, listening to readings of the Black feminist Combahee River Collective, Sojourner Truth (1797–1833), and Alice Coltrane. Their collective voices, echoed in contemporary footage of the Chicago-based activist coalition R3 (Resist. Reimagine. Rebuild.), fuse spirituality and activism into a potent articulation of self-realization and resistance. The actions unfold not only within different sites within the film itself, but in an immersive kaleidoscopic environment of light and seating in the Museum that interconnects the film with a more expansive sense of place and collective presence.
Pilgrim traces the artist’s pilgrimage to three sites: Alice Coltrane’s Turiyasangitananda Vedantic Center in Agoura, California; Watts Towers in Los Angeles; and the Black spiritual activist Rebecca Cox Jackson’s (1795–1871) Watervliet Shaker community in upstate New York. Smith vividly evokes the creative atmosphere of each place, allowing the camera to slowly explore the ashram’s interior and Coltrane’s musical instruments, and using the soft grain and subtle color of Super 8 film to infuse the footage of Watts Towers and the flowers in the Shaker garden with an emotional intimacy. Jackson’s advocacy of racial and gender equality, her fight against the patriarchy of organized religion, and her awareness of the African roots of her faith resonate with Coltrane’s own hybrid, transnational spiritual and musical language. Both women’s challenges to accepted authority are, like the enduring independent spirit of Watts Towers, grounded in a sense of place, community, and generosity that are also hallmarks of Smith’s own transformative work.
The screenings of Smith’s films in High Line Art’s presentation of Signals from Here, organized by Melanie Kress, High Line Art Associate Curator, will take place from dusk until the park closes, on the High Line at 14th Street. The program includes Three Songs About Liberation (2017), Crow Requiem (2015), Lessons in Semaphore (2015), H-E-L-L-O (2014), and Songs for Earth and Folk (2013).
Screening and Conversation with Cauleen Smith and Michael Gillespie Friday, March 27, 6:30 pm
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Whitney will present a rare screening of Passing Through (1977, 105 min) by LA Rebellion filmmaker Larry Clark, preceded by one of Cauleen Smith’s films. Following the screening, Smith will be in conversation with film scholar Michael Boyce Gillespie, Associate Professor of Film in the Department of Media and Communication Arts and the Black Studies Program at the City College of New York, City University of New York.
Tickets required. ($10 adults; $8 members, students, seniors, and visitors with a disability).
Cauleen Smith: Mutualities is part of the Whitney’s emerging artists program, sponsored by Nordstrom. Generous support is provided by The Rosenkranz Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Artists Council.