By Maxine Williams
Ja'Tovia Gary is an accomplished artist and filmmaker. Her work covers a variety of topics including identity, race and gender, and how specific groups are portrayed in popular culture and media.
Gary’s current short film on display at The Whitney, An Ecstatic Experience, is described by the artist as “a meditative invocation on transcendence as a means of restoration.”
At the beginning of the film, Ruby Dee appears and recites a story about the experience of living on a plantation. The performance was based on a true story from Fannie Moore, a slave whose story was recorded and preserved by the Federal Writers Project and the Library of Congress. Moore’s story is about the struggles her mom encountered while raising children during slavery. Her mom was reliant on religion to lift her spirits and transcend the oppressive nature of slavery.
Viewing the footage of Ruby Dee’s monologue was both provocative and brooding. The actress was able to truly reveal the emotion and energy in a manner that was thoughtful of the memory of Fannie Moore. This account also presented the highly criticized relationship between African Americans and Christianity as it was introduced by their slave owners. This story is paired with Gary’s on-screen animations and motion graphics. Some of the effects include split screens, multiplications of Dee’s image, as well as halos, diagonal lines, and dots that orbit Dee’s face. These post production details add spectacle and emphasis to Dee’s striking and emotional monologue.
The film also features footage from an interview with well-known political activist Assata Shakur, where she recounts her feelings about her reputation in America, to which she impassively responds “no comment”. Gary closes the film with recent footage of Black Lives Matter protests with images of police in combat ready gear, and protesters of all racial backgrounds marching for justice.
Throughout the film there are major themes of power, conquest and transformation, especially in reference to the relationship between the African American experience and the act of protesting. Dee’s monologue addressed the desire for slaves to escape both mentally and physically, and juxtaposed the footage of the BLM protests. The African American body is still disrespected and mistreated, however citizens are now able to take part in changing the future through movements; a platform for black voices to be heard, noticed, and able to incite action.
Ja’Tovia Gary’s film is a part of "An Incomplete History of Protest" an ongoing exhibition on the sixth floor of the Whitney Museum (pay what you wish on Fridays 7-10pm), and something you definitely don’t want to miss!