Ja’Tovia Gary’s Kaleidoscopic Film Makes Its Texas Debut

On view at FotoFest in Houston until November 13, 2021.

By Amarie Gipson

Installation view of Ja'Tovia Gary, THE GIVERNY SUITE, 2019, in the exhibition In Place of an Index at FotoFest. September 2–November 13, 2021. Presented in conjunction with the Texas Biennial 2021, A New Landscape, A Possible Horizon. Photo courtesy of FotoFest. 

Image: Fotofest

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Ja’Tovia Gary is Southern to her core. As a film director and visual artist, she creates work fueled by her revolutionary spirit, unwavering sense of pride and commitment to care.

Before Gary settled into her passion for filmmaking, she spent her early years nurturing a love for theatre and performance. In 2014, she earned an MFA in Social Documentary Filmmaking from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has a background in Africana studies. Through the lens of a radical Black femme, she uses film to spotlight the lived experiences of Black women, while investigating and critiquing systems of power. Throughout her artistic practice, Gary has created her own multi-textured visual language by employing avant-garde film techniques, like direct animation, and fusing them with her careful usage of archival footage.

“That’s what excites me about film, I like making the audience work a little bit. It provides a more worthwhile and substantive viewing experience,” she tells Houstonia. 

In the summer of 2016, Gary spent two months in Giverny, France completing an artist residency with the Terra Art Foundation, where she had unrestricted access to the lush garden of French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet. In the same time period, America dealt with an onslaught of police brutality. As a result of this disjointed reality and the ongoing threat of violence against Black people in the U.S., Gary created THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT (Single Channel), (2019)⁠—a 41-minute meditation on the safety and bodily autonomy of Black women.

Now, the kaleidoscopic film has made its way to Houston as part of the 2021 Texas Biennial.

The project’s inclusion is a major highlight of In Place of an Index, a group exhibition co-organized by FotoFest’s associate curator Max Fields and Texas Biennial curators Ryan Dennis and Evan Garza. While the single-channel version of the film was shown at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival back in 2019. FotoFest is the first Texas venue to exhibit Gary’s immersive, three-channel expansion.  

“Do you feel safe?” This simple, yet evocative question is central to Gary. Filmed on location in the streets of Harlem and Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, THE GIVERNY DOCUMENT, (2019) is a cinematic poem set to a chopped and screwed’ soundtrack of Louis Armstrong singing “La Vie en rose.” Images of Gary idling in the lush garden are intercut with verité, archival and found footage. The project ranging from interviews with Black women in the streets of central Harlem to Nina Simone performing at a jazz festival in 1976, Obama-era drone-strike recordings, and Diamond Reynold’s Facebook Livestream video taken during the murder of Philando Castile in 2016. Threaded together, these complex images emphasize how imperialism, patriarchy and white supremacy have impacted the lives and realities of Black women

After living in Brooklyn for 17 years, Gary returned to Dallas in 2019 to expand her practice and focus on her feature-length documentary, The Evidence of Things Not Seen

Although her work has been shown in multiple festivals and gallery contexts across Europe and North America, its Texas debut brings things full circle. “I think Texan women have some unique challenges because, in many ways, the stronghold of patriarchy is very intense down here. My earliest negotiations of safety were here. After returning, I’ve been thinking a lot about the dance that women here have to do around masculinity in order to stay safe,” Gary explains.

In a moment where Texas is at the controversial forefront of women’s rights issues, Gary hopes that viewers, especially Black Texan women, are able to engage with the film and reflect on their negotiations with power and safety. “There have been such great responses and I never thought it would have garnered the response that it has. I’ve been able to create something singular, something that feels completely and utterly mine and it’s something I can celebrate.” 

Visit In Place of an Index at FotoFest on view until November 13, 2021. For more information visit, here

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