Exhibition at BAMPFA through Dec. 18
by Wanda Sabir, Arts & Culture Editor
Xaviera Simmons is one of 12 artists invited to participate in an exhibition that queries the concept of incarceration and its effect on the bodies, minds and spirits of those caged and their captors – not to mention the communities they leave, their bereaved families and the social institutions impacted in both positive and negative ways.
The exhibit was convened by the Arizona State University Art Museum, which organized and premiered it in 2021. “Undoing Time: Art and Histories of Incarceration” opened Sept. 3 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and features a film festival this October and a variety of panels, conversations, tours and other events through Dec. 18.
This iteration is curated by BAMPFA Guest Curator Julio César Morales and Chief Curator Christina Yang, who coordinated the exhibition’s BAMPFA presentation with Curatorial Assistant Claire Frost. What makes this show unique is the collaborative approach between art makers, activists and historians whose work here once again brings into the gallery space the voices of those vanished and silenced.
When one walks into the BAMPFA and turns left into the first gallery, Simmons’s work greets patrons – walls of words, monitors with words falling across the screen next to giant planks with carefully scripted block letters fill boards of varying sizes. As one walks around the edifice, we see framed portraits, animation on a screen and other images.
However, it is the video of a woman shadow boxing followed by another silent or silenced woman arranging flowers in a bowl that drew my attention after I watched the falling words across the screen until I’d made sure I’d seen all its configurations.
Simmons and I spoke a couple months ago before the exhibit opened. We found that we lived on the same figurative block and so were able to shortcut the trivial and get to the bloody truths—exchanging bandages and cleaning fluid as we prayed for water or at least common sense to strike heads of state.
Is there such a thing as “undoing time”? Once time is gone, there is nothing undone except a life(s).
What is beautiful about this exhibition which features nonwhite artists, four artists from the Bay Area, is how it slows down the lives affected, the magic or medicine that keeps some of us safe and what is sacred. There are a lot of video installations, conversations one needs to wear headphones to listen, writing assignments, thought-provoking questions about how we are implicated or indicted when inattentive, and then there is a “cloud” room where we get a crash course in the aesthetics of what it means to be human and who gets to decide.
All the terminals were not working when I was at the museum, so I will have to return. I hope before the exhibit leaves there will be a transcript of the conversations at the pizzeria and other exhibits with headphones for those patrons who do not want to put them on.
I liked the openness of the gallery spaces – the white walls, living plants, the giant eagle sculpture … string art on a wall, the story of a prison’s closure and the community’s transformation – it was like traveling in another country or world. Who are these people, one might ask? They are we, would be the answer. Such injustice is normalized for so many of us – “Undoing Time” is a neutral space to entertain an alternative reality.
For tickets and information: BAMPFA, 2155 Center St. Berkeley, CA. Call 510-642-0808 or email email@example.com. The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission first Thursdays.
Xaviera Simmons’ sweeping practice includes photography, painting, video, sound, sculpture, text and installation. Her work engages the formal histories of art through the construction of landscape, language, and the complex histories of the United States and its continuing empire building internally and on a global scale.
Simmons received her BFA from Bard College (2004) after spending two years on a walking pilgrimage retracing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with Buddhist Monks. She completed the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in Studio Art (2005) while simultaneously completing a two-year actor-training conservatory with The Maggie Flanigan Studio, NY.
Recent solo exhibitions include “Crisis Makes A Book Club” at The Queens Museum (2022-2023), “Nectar” at Kadist, Paris (2022), “The Structure, The Labor, the Pause” at Sarasota Art Museum (2022), “Convene” at Sculpture Center, New York, “Overlay” at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, “The Gold Miner’s Mission to Dwell on the Tide Line” at The Museum of Modern Art – The Modern Window, New York, and “CODED” at The Kitchen, New York.
I found her articulate and lovely to speak with. Our rapport was immediate cross distance and generation and medium. I am happy to finally share 30 of the 50 minute conversation with you, the rest will be online at wandaspicks.com.
Wanda Sabir: There were a couple of moments in your bio, particularly around the pilgrimage that you did I was curious about. I was wondering – was that the same pilgrimage tracing the transatlantic slave trade of our ancestors? Was that the same one they made a film from, and was it connected to the East Bay Meditation Center? There was a conversation a while back with participants. They showed a film. There were these different convening points.
Xaviera Simmons: The pilgrimage was from 1998 to 2000. It is a small part in the second version of “Eyes on the Prize.” I can’t remember the name of that film at this moment. I mean, I think around that time there were maybe like one or two other types of pilgrimages. but this one was pretty unique, because it was anchored by Buddhist monks, and it was like an interfaith experience. So if that’s the one you know, then yeah, that’s the pilgrimage that I was on.
Wanda Sabir: I have to look through my notes. It’s been a while since I saw the film. The East Bay meditation center, which is a space for people of color, hosted the dialogue with people from the journey and the film director. The EBMC was founded by an African American Buddhist woman. Yeah, there was a film, and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. This is a film about the pilgrimage, about how it came together, and what happened in New York, around the organizing.
It’s really good. I even had an interview with the director on my radio show. [The premise was to heal those places of rupture. The earth holds trauma and this was to release that energy through prayer and meditation. The pilgrims stayed with community members who hosted them on their travels and then people got on a boat]. I will look for it and send it to you.
Another piece you mention in one of the interviews I watched was about the Executive Order, and the “40 acres and a mule,” and what you said about Spike Lee’s signature: “40 acres and a Mule Productions.” As a child, you queried your family around these topics – what is an executive order? What is 40 Acres and A Mule?
Then later, when you become a grown person, and you’re doing your own art practice, the work comes together for you around this query. I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about your practice, because it’s so multilayered – you’re an actor. You’re a filmmaker. You’re an etymologist; you’re a historian.
How do you bring all of these threads to this current commission and group show: “Undoing time: Art and Histories of Incarceration,” which ties in really well, unfortunately, to the whole idea around captivity and capture and poverty and impoverishment and displacement, which you know some of the things that I read about your work are themes that run through your work too. So that’s sort of what I want to talk about now, just want to get to know you a little bit.
Xaviera Simmons: Thank you. That sounds wonderful. Well, I’m just gonna go into what you just spoke about and try to tease out some of the things inside. I will say that I feel very anchored. My anchoring as an artist is really tied to history.
When I was in high school, I really took art history very seriously. I took European and American history very seriously too, so I’m literally still thinking through how those things are intertwined, because they are. They’re always tied together: The art historical foundations of painting and sculpture are tied to religion, and in the Eurocentric sense it’s tied to the church primarily.
In other people’s cultures it’s tied to their different spiritualities. I think that that’s something that I’m always thinking about, and then how that ties to the contemporary social economic conditions.
But I want to start by saying that I’m interested in materials. I really love looking at experience dealing with textures and textiles. I used to sew my clothes like doll clothes since I was a kid. I was always in thrift stores, and even when I was really young, I would go by myself, within easy reach to my home where there was a vintage store.
For me, the textiles and the materials and the colors, and the color palette and the historical connotations, and the historical, both art and socio-political and contemporary are the things that are really the seeds of my work. And then everything else is like layers on that.
So that’s one thing.
I think every day of my ideas around landscape and place, and this country in particular, the United States. I try to be specific in the place that I’m talking about, and for me the United States is a particular space. I try to stick to that language – this is the United States.
This is the [geography] I’m most familiar with. This is the place the group of people that I grew up with and that I’m culturally kin to “our people” – all descendants of this institution of slavery for the most part.
I don’t want to just stop with “40 acres and a mule.”
The United States is also an empire like any other empire that we understand historically. It’s the same, and so it’s just a contemporary version of other empires. I think that’s a really important [concept] because empires also destabilize other countries. That means, that while I’m specific to the United States in terms of my inquiries, it’s a global conversation – because the United States, even though I am a descendant of enslaved peoples, which are, you know, an amalgamation of all kinds of people. Some of us know who we are, and some of us don’t.
Even as people who live in the United States, we are part of the global domination of others. I think that I sit in that now and the last thing I’ll say before we keep going is that, “40 acres and a mule” is really critical to an understanding of yourself as an enslaved person – no not an enslaved person, excuse me – but a person who descends from that institution.
Ultimately there’s also a conversation, I mean, and it’s a complicated one, around, you know – and this I’m taking this from another artist – being a stolen person on stolen land, which we know. We worked this land, but this land had been stewarded by various thousands of different indigenous peoples before we arrived as captives, intermixed and raped into existence basically.
As I’m maturing and having deeper conversations, I don’t want to just stop with “40 acres and a mule.” We have not as a group come to terms with our full indigenous conversation and then also the indigenous conversation we need to have with people on the continent of Africa. People who are indigenous to here, and the people who are indigenous to Europe usually get our most wrath [chuckle]. You know what I mean, but there’s many conversations that Black Americans who descended from slavery need to have in order to fully experience the kind of “freedom,” quote unquote, “freedom, liberation,” that we keep desiring – their solidarity.
Those are contemplations I try to put inside of my work inside of the materials that I think about and enjoy.
Wanda Sabir: I think the query is really important in view of the stopping and the starting. We haven’t been able to have a continuous conversation. We needed to be in conversation from the beginning, because by now, if we would have been in conversation these past you know almost 157 years, since we’ve been free, then we’d be in a better position now as a nation.
I’m talking United States of America, but also globally, because this stuff extends. It’s a projection.
Xaviera Simmons: Hmm!
Wanda Sabir: As you know as a person who has traveled. You’re sitting right now in Oaxaca and Oaxaca has a particular history as a place, and Mexico, in relationship to California, in relationship to Arizona and Texas.
Xaviera Simmons: It’s the same place.
Wanda Sabir: Yes, exactly the same place. And then you think about the people. You know these are our people.
Xaviera Simmons: They really are.
Wanda Sabir: It is so interesting to have a philosophy that claims our people even when they don’t want to be claimed.
You know how we do. We call people brother and sister, and sometimes the response is – I’m not your sister, we don’t have the same mama. As a diaspora, we claim the whole continent, you know. These are our African people, even if our people don’t necessarily claim us. I was just thinking about New York as a country, and I think about my place of origin, New Orleans as a country with distinction, and I notice that you’ve done some work there and it shows up in the current work, in the conversation, so you know sort of having these interconnections that are unacknowledged, you know.
Xaviera Simmons: Yeah.
Wanda Sabir: And I think that it’s really good when you’re an artist and you go deep to excavate these connections, and make them more visible. I think that’s what your work does. Please talk a little bit more about that and bring us into this current exhibit, and how you were tapped to be a part of this unique query that was multiple years in its development, you know, for the University of Arizona Museum, which took over the whole museum, this conversation around these people – our people who are disappeared in plain view, those who are incarcerated, who lose their rights of citizenship, and sometimes they’ve lost their rights for the rest of their lives, so they’re slaves forever, even when they’re released. They can’t vote. People can’t live in housing that is supported by the government, yet they pay taxes. They can’t serve on juries.
Xaviera Simmons: Well, my work inside of “Undoing Time” – I thought of it as a brain. There’s like many different aspects to it: there’s text works. There are photographs. There are videos. The whole thing is kind of like a sculptural work. Obviously, none of these conversations are linear.
I think a lot about the one time I spent at Angola in Louisiana, which was catalyzed by Art for Justice, which also helped fund that exhibition and the research around it. Then having friends, colleagues who have been inside, were formerly incarcerated. There’s never a clear way to articulate. We’ve been given language to articulate it through different films that have come into the fore and different books that have come into the fore.
But as an artist [what is my role]? I’m not a documentarian nor am I a filmmaker in the traditional sense. So for me I’m thinking about what’s not legible in a kind of straightforward narration or historical artifact. What came up was thinking about humans and subhumans and how consistently complicating the human itself in the United States literally means a white human being in the context of the history, you know.
So, like, how do I talk to that figure? And then how do I also meditate on the contemplation of what the effects of that figure?
The first kind of push against is through the systemic whiteness, the systemic white supremacy, right? We don’t have language that is legible. We have a certain way of speaking about that experience that I think has now become kind of codified in a way in our bodies in some forms, and I think in some ways like as an artist, I’m trying to complicate my understanding of when we say incarceration, when we say whiteness, what does that mean?
And in a way there’s something about humanness and subhumanness I kept thinking about. Underneath it all, there’s always a concept [of otherness] there even in Angola, right? When I went there with the group, or even during the pilgrimage when I traveled for two years, when we went to all these sites and met all these communities, even inside of those spaces there’s green; there’s blue there’s brown; there’s color.
There’s a sun, I think about that when I went to Auschwitz. It’s like there is color. There’s something about understanding the complications of death. Really, I don’t know how to put it any other way of understanding the complications of death, of bondage, of life, of livelihood.
How do I keep making a language do something that I am not used to it doing?
It’s – what’s the word – “incommensurable,” like, it’s not and it is illegible? But what I do know is that the material conditions that are produced by the systemic circumstances that have been constructed in the United States are “A. made up” and “B. unacceptable,” right?
And so, how do I make that visible, while, at the same time, how do I make kind of illegible language in my mind from like seeing these places and being inside of captivity places that we call prisons, and jails and detention centers?
How do I make that? How do I keep bringing language down so that’s the text piece. How do I keep making a language do something that I am not used to it doing? And then also, how do I speak in the language of myself as an artist, but also of art historical, sociohistorical framework?
But ultimately, even when you see the work, I hope people who engage in the work also obviously look at all the other works inside of the exhibition but then go deeper? Do a little research. Watch another video, find interest in the artists that you’re looking at and watch another video, because I think if you, for instance, looked at another video of mine, you would realize that I pretty much am for a reparative model – point blank, that’s it. You don’t have to go too far to find where I’m gonna talk about the material conditions.
Ultimately, I’m interested in a total monetary, spiritual, total reconstruction, total rupture. It’s actually gonna take time and resources. Not too much time. Every community is gonna need resources to even contemplate what that reconstruction can look like. And then you have to implement it.
You know what I’m saying? You have to recognize what are the needs on the federal level? What are the needs on the state level? What are the needs on the local, county level, city level? Family level? Then how do you contemplate that?
That’s the only way, I think, the United States will ever experience a liberation. There have to be mechanisms for moments of contemplation, and that’s where artwork comes in, because artworks massage the mind, because they go at a slower pace than the time that we – you and I – are speaking. They sink in later, so you need that contemplation. You need resources poured into artists to contemplate those things. Then you need an engagement from museums.
You need engagements from city centers, from politicians, and so on and so forth. So there’s a lot of work that I feel like I’m trying to do when I make one work, and I still always have to think about the respect of material.
I am in Oaxaca right now and it’s everywhere. There’s a respect for material, even when it is for your livelihood, there is still a respect for sitting and making. So how do you do those two things? You know one seems short, right? It’s the doing, because you know it by now, it’s a practice. But the other is like, what are you putting in the doing.
I think ultimately, what I’m putting inside of the doing inside of the materials is a real desire for a total restructuring, because New Orleans, like San Francisco, the Bay, are two of the most traumatizing places I have ever been to, while at the same time showing me what this country is, both historically in the case of New Orleans, the foundation, and then San Francisco and the Bay, what’s happening now.
If you put New Orleans and San Francisco together and you looked at their histories, I think you would get pretty much the clearest understanding of the United States – because of their proximity to the water and their proximity to Mexico and the way that in the future will be San Francisco and the Bay with its tech craziness, which is how we’re living now, and the conditions that socioeconomic pace is producing.
And then New Orleans, which is still producing the same, and also historically has produced the same. So, in a way, if you conflated those two states alone, if an alien dropped down, I think I would say, look at the history of New Orleans. Look at the history of the Bay – we could put Chicago in there for fun and you pretty much would get a clear understanding of the United States.
To be continued.
Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.