The Blanton Museum of Art recently acquired an artwork by Cauleen Smith, an interdisciplinary filmmaker, visual artist, and one-time UT professor whose work provides a nuanced and intersectional look at racial injustice. The piece, titled Light Up Your Life (For Sandra Bland), is part memorial, part protest, and part sing-off. It is a neon sign that flickers between two phrases: “I Will Light You Up,” and “I Will Light Up Your Life.”
The sign’s two phrases form a visual call-and-response. The first is the threat a Texas State Trooper shouted at Sandra Bland during a routine traffic stop which led to Bland’s death in police custody in 2015. The second is a reference to the 70s pop song “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone, which was famously reinterpreted by Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Through the adapted song lyrics of the second phrase, Smith neutralizes the threat of the first, “collectivizes Sandra Bland’s resistance, reclaims her sovereignty, and reifies the ways in which Black culture is inextricably woven into national identities and cultures.” The sign’s flashing red and blue text is reminiscent of police lights, evoking both a sense of emergency and the ongoing crisis of police brutality.
It is a timely acquisition for the Blanton. Now hanging in the contemporary art gallery, the piece centers attention on both Bland’s death and the more recent killings of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson in their Texas homes. It stands as a witness to the tragedy of police violence and politicizes the museum space, encouraging an ongoing conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Art that serves as a witness to injustice and lives lost has long been a part of Smith’s oeuvre. Her 1998 film, Dryslongo, features as its protagonist a young photography student named Pica. She takes polaroid photographs of the Black men in her community as a way of documenting their lives, fearing that like an endangered species, they will become extinct. After a close friend is killed, Pica uses junkyard debris to turn her photographs into sculptural memorials. Stylistically, the film draws from the L.A. Rebellion, a neorealist film movement that operated out of UCLA film school between 1970 and 1992 and focused on the struggles of Black Americans in a much deeper way than Hollywood’s blaxploitation films.
Smith’s work and activism in pursuit of reclamation extend beyond museum galleries and art house theaters. She has organized several processions – public rituals with religious, celebratory, military, and civil rights connotations whose origins she traces to West Africa. For a procession in North Adams, MA last fall that was connected to her retrospective “We Already Have What We Need” at Mass MoCA, she planned to have volunteers carry incense burners that would simultaneously heal and alarm by releasing a cleansing scent alongside orange, red, and purple smoke. Several of Smith’s processions have included semaphore flags, objects used for signaling between ships in the 19th century. These flags take on a symbolic meaning for Smith as a part of a dance-like, non-verbal communication style, which in some cases is clearer than words.
Smith takes the concept of flags as a method of communication even further in a series of ornate banners titled “In The Wake.” These hand-stitched works of textile art combine elements of protest signs, marching band and military flags, and the “processional finery of Masonic Lodges, Haitian Vodou flags, and Catholic Requiems.” Phrases like “I am holding my breath,” “Rage blooms within me,” and “I have nothing left,” adorn the banners in sequins and velvet. One silver banner simply says “STOP.” On the reverse side, it depicts a heart spurting blood, a pair of wings, and a diamond.
The banner titled “Camera, Pen or Gun?” seems to ask which of these three items makes the best weapon against bigotry and brutality, and perhaps suggests that lasting change requires the use of all three. In “The Comedians,” a black crow flies off with an anatomical heart. One of its arteries is connected to a microphone, which is crossed by a pencil. Below the symbols, “hahahahahahaha,” is stitched out in cursive. The banner embodies pain and defiance, symbolically expressing that Black self expression is often only accepted when it invites laughter, and highlighting the continued heartache brought about by racist laws and practices. Throughout the series, pencils, microphones, and camera shutters appear as symbols of expression. Smith imagines these objects as “openings for a voice, for an initiative, an articulation.” Crows recur as a direct reminder of the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation.
For the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Smith staged a procession in which these tapestries were carried by a gospel choir singing lyrics drawn from the text of the banners. Smith initially wrote the words that appear on the banners in 2015, after the killing of Tamir Rice. In an interview for the Whitney Museum, she recalled: “the fifth or sixth video of a police shooting in this country had already been released and I felt enormous outrage, anger, and exhaustion at the whole culture of this country.” She told Hyperallergic: “For twenty years, I have devoted myself to making work that speculates on the possibilities for resisting oppression rather than ruminating on the daily damage of white supremacy. But my kind of work requires a willful optimism, which crumbled when that police officer murdered Samaria Rice’s son.”
Smith’s banners are a response to the experience of living in a culture that is impossible to separate from the legacies of slavery. The title of the series comes from Christina Sharpe’s book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” which discusses the continued repercussions of chattel slavery and anti-blackness. The phrase refers to living “in the wake” of slave ships, and being affected daily by the social and economic waves these boats set in motion when they first traced the triangular trade route between Africa and the Americas.
Smith’s work holds pain, anger, healing, and protest. Combining Black feminism and Afrofuturism, Smith’s voice is a poignant addition to the national conversation about how to confront the racism problem that exists deep in American institutions and culture.