Listening With the Ancestors: Cauleen Smith’s “Mutualities”

By David C. Shuford

November 27, 2020

Cauleen Smith, Sojourner, 2018, film still. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum.

“Anything is a myth until you partake of it.” – Sun Ra

Over more than two decades, Cauleen Smith has built up a vibrant body of work that draws on the varieties of Black visionary experience, historical and contemporary, with its trials and joys alike. Steeped in feminism, her art manifests in multiple media, but maintains a strong basis within the experimental film terrain from which she initially emerged. In a recent interview Smith noted that she keeps her creative stance grounded in that which “reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination.” This approach stokes a dynamic where current conditions are well recognized but not deemed as an upper limit or bound to creative living. Through novel social alignment, communal and inspired emanation can pierce strictures of circumscription. 

On view at the Whitney Museum until January 31, 2021, Smith’s Mutualities is her first solo show in New York, and details her interest in helping lay the visual groundwork for what she has called “a cornucopia of future histories.” Through the presentation of two closely related film works and a new series of drawings, Smith examines self-generated creative refuges, unlikely realizations by seldom-recognized historical luminaries. Due to race, class, or language, these figures were pushed to the margins, where the creation of cooperative structures provide nourishment for their being and becoming. 

Cauleen Smith, Pilgrim, 2017, film still. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum.

In Pilgrim (2017), the earlier of the two films on view, the artist journeys to three utopian dream spaces. Smith’s pilgrimage begins with the Vedantic Center founded by the erstwhile jazz musician Swamini Alice Coltrane-Turiyasangitananda, showcasing the interior of the Sai Anantam Ashram, in Agoura, California. Born into a musical family in Detroit, Coltrane was an active pianist when she met her future husband John in 1963. She spent a few years focused on their burgeoning family, eventually joining her husband’s group in 1966. After John’s death, she continued working in a jazz idiom, though with increasing influence from her spiritual pursuits. Coltrane left her secular musical life entirely in 1972 and established the Vedantic Center in 1975.  The ashram footage in Pilgrim was captured by video artist Arthur Jafa; expectedly, he shows great care in his cinematography, with gauzy shots of Coltrane’s main devotional instruments, organ and harmonium, preserved under plexiglass. One stunning camera pan across a handwritten manuscript gives the viewer a shifting focus on individual lines from Coltrane’s writings. The main space of worship is shown in all its humility, with pillows and plastic folding chairs, select percussion instruments, and songbooks scattered about. A soundtrack of Alice’s solo piano music accompanies this footage as the camera turns to the ultra-white facade of the building’s exterior, a pristine monument to higher vibrations. The ashram, which had previously closed to the public in 2017, was tragically destroyed in 2018 by the Woolsey Fire, one of the numerous wildfires to plague California in recent years. Thankfully, Smith documented this meditative place of untethering before its demise.

Watts Towers, one of the most iconic pieces of “outsider” art, are also featured in Pilgrim. The diminutive Italian immigrant Simon Rodia constructed the Towers out of found rebar, glass, porcelain, and assorted other materials, over a period of more than 30 years, from 1921 to 1954. Their concentric rings glint with prismatic joy: this is another arcadia, a now-beloved community landmark where Rodia manifested all of his dreams of “making something big” on his own terms and at his own pace. Smith’s film segues via superimposition and fades from the Watts Towers material to a pastoral interlude in upstate New York, complete with white picket fence and a solitary longhorn steer munching its cud in a verdant field. This segment is an homage to Rebecca Cox Jackson, another visionary who sought expressions of spirituality outside of accepted sects. She was born a free woman in 1795 and, following a mystical experience in the midst of a thunderstorm in 1830, Jackson cut out from her married life and joined the Shakers at their community in Watervliet, New York. After racist stress in this locale, she founded a Black Shaker community in Philadelphia with her longtime companion Rebecca Perot, with whom she lived together for 35 years. Cox Jackson and Coltrane, whose life paths took them from fairly conventional, married women to spiritual leaders of their own independent groups, both have resonance with Frantz Fanon’s reflection in Black Skin, White Masks (2008) that “it is true that consciousness is a process of transcendence, we have to see too that this transcendence is haunted by the problems of love and understanding. Man is a yes that vibrates to cosmic harmonies.”

Cauleen Smith, Mutualities, 2020, installation view. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum.

A kind of companion piece to Pilgrim, Smith’s Sojourner (2018) revisits some of the same utopic spaces seen in Pilgrim but adds in further locales and organizations. Alongside fresh footage of the Vedantic Center ashram and the Watts Towers, Smith filmed in and around jazz great John Coltrane’s former residence in Philadelphia. Smith also documented the Afro-cosmic artwork decorating the exterior door to the Sun Ra Arkestra compound, another key part of the rich jazz/music history of that city. Sun Ra served as a vital touchstone for Smith’s practice when she lived in Chicago between 2010 and 2017, catalyzed by her opportunity to explore the Alton Abraham Sun Ra Collection archive housed at the University of Chicago Library. Her fascination with the Arkestral universe engendered the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band Project, through which she organized numerous flash mob performances of Ra compositions by local youth marching bands. The issue of Black Utopia: A Cauleen Smith Movie (2012), a double LP of selected Sun Ra concerts and lectures, helped manifest her recurrent “film without film” slide projection/installation piece of the same name. The R3 (Resist. Reimagine. Rebuild.) activist collective from Chicago also makes a fleeting appearance in Sojourner, as the chants of community organizers and their practical demands are laid alongside the transcendent and visionary experience exemplified by the Turiya Alice Coltrane material: celestial instruments, the process of opening up your heart to play upon the strings of the cosmos. Colorful banners with quotations embroidered in cursive from Coltrane’s homilies unfurl in seaside breezes, while scratchy radio transmissions of modern recitations of abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s words are matched with other spoken material framing black lesbian identity. The audible juxtaposition of the dreamwork narratives and placid mentoring of Turiya and the Combahee River Collective’s more grounded political exhortations presents variant pathways for imagining new mental and spiritual terrains. 

In Sojourner, Smith features another space configured outside of rational/transactional norms, the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Sculpture Museum located in Joshua Tree, California. Having been a working artist focused upon the found object for over 30 years, Purifoy spent the last 15 years of his life creating large-scale sculpture from “junked” materials on a ten-acre plot in the Mojave desert. As Smith’s camera navigates the sandy terrain, it sweeps over a gazebo placed within a larger, open-walled, round structure. Here a pile of archaic computers and technological detritus make for an evocative setting, a post-cataclysm landscape. Walking into this half-shattered shelter, a dozen young women of color coalesce into a seated audience, as affirmations of the Black feminist experience and struggle for liberation are intoned in a staticky voiceover. Smith’s use of march-like “processions” and proclamations in the form of banners (“be at the hand of might”) engage the signifiers of non-violent protest, while still aiming to avoid flat sloganeering. Though politically involved, Smith does not feel that activism and art are smoothly cognate. Instead, she has asserted her interest in using “the tactics of activism in service of ecstatic social space and contemplation,” rather than finding the need for dogma and didacticism in art. In its culminating images, Sojourner presents a kind of micro-body politic: an adorned nation of young artists and activists drawing from spiritual ancestors that have traversed the mundane and forged their own personal realms. 

Cauleen Smith, Latasha Gave Me African Sleeping Sickness, 2020.

Adjacent to the viewing room, Smith’s Firespitters (2020) series displays multiple drawings of books recommended by poet friends, paired with companion pieces in which the poets hold up a book of their own writings. Here mutuality is explicitly illustrated as writers support their peers, while Smith transfers these collaborative acts into visual form, celebrating both her friends’ creative efforts and that of their forebears. Her literary contemporaries help extend the dialogue with living proponents and ancestral allies alike. The series title summons an antithesis to the Fire-Eaters, the pro-slavery Southerners who urged secession and kindled the outbreak of the Civil War. The Selma, Alabama bridge made infamous on Bloody Sunday in March 1965 to this day bears the name of Edmund Pettus, a Confederate officer and U.S. Senator, as well as a noted member of that group of vociferous racists. Some 170 years later, the spirits of power and interdependence are still needed to gather and withstand the stubborn legacy of treasonous racial prejudice in America. 

Speaking in another recent interview, Smith stated that “if we want to progress as a society, we need to engage our surroundings…It was exciting when New Orleans took down their Confederate monuments and left empty plinths. I have no desire to see them filled. There’s so much possibility in the blank space.” Smith calls for a re-imagining of public space and communal effort, where visionary approaches can shatter ossified assumptions and open up potentiality. Through what she has termed “acts of radical generosity and community building” the supposed nowhere of utopia may be actualized in our fractured world, within parameters that bridge self-reliance and collaborative action. In her art Smith honors some of the far out benefactors of previous centuries, and in turn celebrates the current possibilities for parallel realms of creative groupings to forge alliances, and battle against profane stagnation and the rigid acceptance of civilization as given.


Mutualities remains on view through January 31, 2020 at the Whitney Museum, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY.

David C. Shuford is a writer, musician, and art librarian living in Queens, New York. He is currently an MFA Art Writing candidate (Class of 2021) at SVA.

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