Ti’jhae Beecher is 7 years old when she happens upon the artist and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary on the corner of West 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem in 2019. Gary, flanked by a camera crew and with a microphone in hand, had stopped her to ask a simple question: “Do you feel safe?” Beecher, who is standing with her grandfather, answers yes and proceeds to tell Gary about how she feels prepared to leave the house every day, but that there are times when she is upset about having to wake up early for school. Gary agrees that waking up early is, in fact, the worst, and then asks Beecher if, for the most part, she feels good. Beecher replies plainly: “I don’t feel like I’m in danger.”
“That’s good,” Gary says in response. “I hope you never ever feel like you are in danger, that you always feel safe and strong.” Gary’s interview with Beecher is one of many that she conducts with Black women and girls in Harlem that day, asking those passers-by — who differ in age, ethnicity and spiritual identification — if they feel safe in their bodies, and in the world. She includes their wide-ranging responses to her question in “The Giverny Document” (2019), an experimental film that explores what it means to exist in the world for Black women, and Black women only. The roughly 40-minute feature was part of a three-channel video installation presented at both Paula Cooper Gallery in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles this year (both shows closed early because of Covid-19), but has also been shown as a stand-alone project at film festivals, garnering Gary awards and critical acclaim.
When Gary, 35, talked about that moment with Beecher over the phone the Monday after this past Juneteenth, she described her own response as naïve, because, she said, “there is no way that she is going to feel safe forever.” But, Gary added, “our job is to create a world where that is possible.” As she sees it, part of her mission as a Black Southern queer artist is to help shape this imagined world, one in which Black women do not live in a state of precarity, forever teetering between violence and safety. Indeed, Gary has been engaging with themes of power and representations of Black womanhood in her work since 2010. Her films are painterly and essayistic, combining seemingly disparate archival footage to elicit new and different emotional responses from the viewer. “Healing is at the root of the work,” she said. “Making art is a transformative process that transmutes pain or trauma into something beautiful, useful, functional, instructive for those who can engage with the work, and for me.”
Before Gary made films, she wanted to be in them. She was born in Dallas and raised in Cedar Hill, a lush suburb about 20 minutes outside of the city, which she characterizes as alienating. She came from a family of religious storytellers — there are preachers and ministers on both of her parents’ sides — and always loved an audience: “I was the girl who was going to read out loud in language arts class,” she said. In fifth grade, her stepfather died, and the experience left her with anxiety that complicated her relationship to attention. Still, Gary went on to become “a theater geek,” and, when she was in the 11th grade, she transferred to Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a highly competitive arts school whose alumni include Erykah Badu and Norah Jones. To say the experience changed her life is an understatement. There, Gary studied ancient Greek theater, Shakespeare and Molière alongside foundational Black texts: “I learned about Black women playwrights, the Black feminist literary tradition as well, everyone from Ntozake Shange to Lorraine Hansberry.”
Armed with this knowledge and ambition, she left Texas and moved to New York in 2002 to study at Marymount Manhattan College. After a year, she dropped out (for a combination of financial and mental health reasons), started waiting tables and got herself a manager. She landed some roles in television commercials and doing voiceovers, and was relatively successful, but the opportunities were limiting and “demoralizing,” she said, recalling one gig for which she was instructed to be “a little more urban.”
While assessing her feelings about acting and the roles available to her, Gary re-enrolled in school — this time at Brooklyn College — and started taking classes in Africana studies. “Figuring out how I was going to move forward as an artist became a serious conundrum,” she said. “For me, moving to the position of director was about gaining agency and power and autonomy.”
From behind the camera, Gary has been able to create work that explores and reclaims Black women’s subjectivity. In her 2015 short “An Ecstatic Experience,” she combines, among other clips, one from a 1965 television show in which the actress Ruby Dee dramatizes the narrative of Fannie Moore, a woman born into slavery in 1849, with one of the activist Assata Shakur talking to the reporter Gil Noble in 1987 about her escape from the United States to Cuba. Gary employs a technique called direct animation, etching cubes around Dee’s face, as well as stripes, waves and halos — marks that emphasize a feeling of frenzy and ecstasy, temporarily destabilizing the viewer and connecting one Black woman’s liberation to another. She uses a similar approach in “Giverny I (Négresse Impériale),” a six-minute short she made in 2016 during a summer residency with the Terra Foundation for American Art in Giverny, France. “Giverny I,” all of which is included in “The Giverny Document,” addresses the insecurity of the Black woman’s body by juxtaposing video of Gary in Claude Monet’s garden with Diamond Reynold’s video of the cop who fatally shot her boyfriend, Philando Castile, that same summer. The result is a chaotic yet clarifying compendium of images. “I don’t want the work to lull people into a sense of complacency,” Gary said. “I don’t want them to be merely satisfied or entertained.”
The power of her films comes in part from her intimate and involved process. Gary spends hours scouring the internet for archival footage — from live performances to interviews — and treats the material as a canvas, scratching or painting onto the film surface or even adhering flower petals to clear film strips before digitizing and editing them. In the case of the Facebook Live footage she uses in “The Giverny Document,” Gary obscures Castile’s bloodied body with leaves and petals she plucked from the plants in Monet’s garden to interrogate the ease with which society consumes images of Black death and violence.
Over the last five years, Gary has been working on an autobiographical documentary titled “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” It’s a project about her relationship to her family that recently brought her back to Dallas (after 16 years in New York and a brief stint in Boston), where she has been self-isolating during the pandemic. In some ways it has allowed her to embark on her own healing journey, she explained. “It requires honesty with not simply my family but myself,” she said of the work. “It’s very much about leaping with no net, you know, and asking, do you have the courage to do that?”