Sound Garden: Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document: Winner of the 2020 Toni Beauchamp Prize in Critical Art Writing

Ayanna Dozier

“You know how the young folks are.” —Woman, to Ja’Tovia Gary.
“Yeah, I do. They’re too crunk.” —Ja’Tovia Gary.

The Giverny Document is a noisy film, full of music, yelling, screaming, crying, scratching, wailing, and laughter. But the most deafening moments unfold in silence when viewers are left to assess what is missing, what cannot be represented. Consider the deep pauses and puzzled faces of the Black women and girls standing on the corner of 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, thinking of how to answer filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary’s question, the one that structures this movie: “Do you feel safe in your body, in the world?” Their responses vary widely, as do the places these women hail from: Sierra Leon, Guyana, North Carolina (Gary herself was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, and purposefully invokes this detail in the film). Their replies do not resolve the question but rather reveal how, for Black women and girls, safety is always a negotiation with the world and oneself amid a backdrop of white supremacy and patriarchal terror (many of the young girls report being followed by men at night, for instance).

Gary’s forty-minute experimental film, her first feature, incorporates and extends her 2017 short Giverny I (Négresse Impériale)The Giverny Document bounces through a plurality of texts: Gary on the streets in Harlem in a wig, evoking Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961); Gary in Giverny, sans wig; surveillance footage of drone strikes; Fred Hampton advocating for the education of the Negro lest we fall prey to the imperial mindset of the colonists; and Nina Simone’s wrestling with her cover of Morris Albert’s “Feelings” at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Film’s material texture is emphasized throughout, often to playful effect. Animations are drawn directly onto the film stock: a diamond, an anchor, a crescent moon, and a comb, among other emblems. Glitches recur, often in sync with the soundtrack’s tempo, evoking the familiar jam of digital images. But these bugs are analog aberrations, achieved through camera-less footage, à la Stan Brakhage, of hand-pressed leaves, activated by light and movement. Gary troubles the mise-en-scène with these celluloid tears, fracturing the frame’s capacity to hold a scene or body together. These schisms dominate Gary’s scenes in Monet’s famous garden in Giverny, drawing attention to the disjuncture her Black body brings to a landscape exemplary of white European cultural production that emerged alongside brute colonialism.

Black artists have long struggled with the documentary image, recognizing its history of negatively shaping perceptions of global Black populations. For makers such as Portia Cobb, Jamika Ajalon, and Yvonne Welborn—all-Blackfeminist experimental documentarists—the documentary is a critical terrain to reclaim, often through experimental tactics that reveal how images have multiple “truths” in their production, circulation, and meaning. Saidiya Hartman describes this destabilizing of the singularity of truth as a “critical fabulation.” In this way, fabulation in The Giverny Document renders visible the Black noise of daily life Gary emphasizes the sequences of being a Black woman, walking down the street, elongated periods of emotional exchange, and anxiety all accumulate to produce an effect of lived experience that evades narrative capture and transcends representation, that is, the flattening of a life into an image read purely for its content. Artists like Gary are working against the idea of neutral representation, revealing a different way of feeling and responding to the documentation of Black life. Her aesthetics recall Hartman’s claim for the urgency of scrambling the power of narrative representation: “Narrative restraint, the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure, is a requirement of this method [fabulation], as is imperative to respect Black noise—the shrieks, the moans, the nonsense, and the opacity, which are always in excesses of legibility and the law and which hint at and embody aspirations that are wildly utopian, derelict to capitalism.”

 Following the opening shots of cameraless film and repurposed 16-mm images of a waterfall set to Shirley Ann Lee’s “How Can I Lose,” Gary incorporates cell phone footage of Love & Hip Hop star Joseline Hernandez speaking to the camera: “Can I fucking live?” The clip’s “portrait mode” has become the default format for documenting our lives. The camera-phone format reemerges in Diamond Reynolds’s 2016 footage of a Minnesota police officer killing Philando Castile, her boyfriend, a clip incorporated midway through the film when Gary wanders through Monet’s gardens.

The internet’s archival resources have made citation a near-mandatory element of digital production, and quotidian Black life images have become vital components of contemporary media. Gary complicates the over-willingness to deploy images of Black pain, death, sorrow, and trauma by distorting archival footage. Her presentation of Reynolds’s Livestream, for example, strategically omits Castile’s dead body by puncturing the frame with collaged leaves. We are not experiencing the digital replay of this event but viewing a distortion that encourages audiences to feel with Diamond and her daughter. The Black lives are often erased from representations of Black death.

 And then there’s Simone. The full version of her 1976 Montreux closing set performance, “Feelings,” is an unrestrained, ten-minute agony. Simone struggles to accept the song because she does “not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that.” Her performance is a visceral attempt to work through that disbelief. She wanders through the blues, registering despair through her movements, her continual vulnerable pauses and huffs, and the plucking of keys. In Simone’s performance, we gather how Gary politicizes formal aesthetics of Black womanhood. It is not the representation of Black women that concerns Gary, but rather the production of a lived body through affective means, “flesh that needs to be loved,” as Toni Morrison would assert (this was also the title of Gary’s solo exhibition held at Paula Cooper Gallery in 2020). The Giverny Document channels the power of embodying lived experiences that cannot be collapsed through representation; its moving images do not participate in the coercion of Black life but rather speak to its noise, its anarchic potential of survival on an arc ever leaning toward emancipation.