Cauleen Smith (photo by Dustin Aksland)

Welcome to the 26th installment of Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, I interview the interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith. Smith’s work is generous, intelligent, and uniquely her own. Her experimental films are poetic and political reflections on Black identity, history, and memory, drawing on many great Black thinkers and cultural figures in the process, like Alice Coltrane, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Noah Purifoy, and Sun Ra. Black feminism drives much of her work, such as a 2019 series titled BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989–2019, in which 30 gouache-and-graphite drawings depict different works of literature that are meaningful to the artist, like Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others. Smith’s work drew critical acclaim at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she displayed striking banners with phrases including “MY PATHOLOGY IS YOUR PROFIT” and “I’M SO BLACK THAT I BLIND YOU.” Smith is interested in using “the tactics of activism in service of ecstatic social space and contemplation.” In sum, she says her art “reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination.”

Smith is currently on the faculty at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, and received her MFA from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She recently created a new work of art that is currently on exhibition (virtually) at the San Diego Museum of Art. That video work, titled “Flori Canta,” is a response to Juan Sánchez Cotán’s “Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” (1602), a painting in the museum’s permanent collection.

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Cauleen Smith, “Flori Canta” (2020), video still, virtually on view at the San Diego Museum of Art (image courtesy the artist) 

Where were you born?

Born in Riverside California, and grew up in Sacramento, California.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

I moved from Chicago in December of 2017. It’s my second time living in Los Angeles. I went to grad school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and fell in love with that town that time. It’s good to be back. LA is so dynamic and it has changed dramatically in the 16 years I was away! I miss dirty grungy Hollywood. But I love how LA is not a nostalgic place and people here do not have to constantly remind themselves of why it’s great to live here like, say, in New York, where “only in New York!…” boosterism seems like a balm for the hardship of living in a place with $5 avocados. Ha! I’m comfortable here in this place where people are hustling to live their best life while also enjoying the life we can live here. I do miss Black people. Somehow, LA has ejected its Black folks. We went from being a city with a Black mayor to a city where residents can’t even afford rent in communities that feel comfortable to them. I’m still trying to find my place here. And I’m embracing that process.

What’s your first memory of seeing art?

My memory is terrible.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?

Yes, I often take an iPhone snap of an artwork that I need to revisit later for research. Generally, I’m not trying to take a picture for presentation. The image just lives in my phone, along with another snap of the wall text so I remember why I took the picture! But often, I just try to spend enough time with art so that I make an imprint of it, so then I leave with the crucial impression that I needed to get from it.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?

I was on the road for most of this year before COVID-19 struck, so I missed a lot. There were two shows that I caught and really loved. Katie Herzog’s Yankee Candle at Klowden Mann, and Tomashi Jackson’s Forever My Lady at Night Gallery.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois. I read it 30 years ago as an undergrad. Reading it now, I realize how formative it was for me, how I internalized this particular analysis of the formation of our country and how that has shaped my conception of myself, my community, and this country. For pure pleasure and deep inspiration, I think Dionne Brand’s Blue Clerk is a marvel. I also audiobook binged for the third time on NK Jemison’s Fifth Season Trilogy. I just love this series and each time I come to the end of the third book, I get so fretful because I desperately want the saga to continue!

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

I really enjoy looking at art with friends, but I find myself sneaking off to museums and galleries spontaneously when I have some free time, so I am often alone. I enjoy this mode as well because it gives me the silence and time to approach work on my own terms. But it’s always so enlightening to learn what friends and fellow artists respond to. Both modes are great. But truthfully, when I get to see friends, I’m kind of just into seeing them. A date at the museum would always end up with two glasses of wine at the museum café. So … maybe it’s better if I go alone. Ha! But what we do now with The Rona willfully lingering? I’m struggling with this. How do you make space for people when they are no longer safe being together in public space? How do you lean into a painting with a friend from six feet away? I guess we’ll find out, because The Rona ain’t going nowhere no time soon.

What are you currently working on?

COVID-19 collided with the resolution of a big body of work for me, so I would have been hibernating anyway. I’m doing a lot of research and excited by the way that some of the things I am interested in are also percolating in popular culture, of all places — for me that does not happen!

I’m reading and re-reading a ton. Recently I participated in Jennifer Doyle’s (of Human Resources) phenomenal free class which paired the short story by Rebecca Harding Davis, “Life In The Iron Mills,” with Marx. Mind Blown! It’s good to have help slogging through Das Capital. And Davis’s story is still haunting me.

I’m growing a little garden in my backyard to try to create some kind of relation with the land here. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to think of the earth as a relation instead of a resource. A lot of indigenous folk already know what this means — I’m just trying to catch up — and also, to frame this understanding as someone who has no land to call their own. Blacks of the diaspora have transplanted ourselves. We were dragged to these places as captive chattel, but we made ourselves human by relating to the world and each other. I think about the process of becoming human and I’m almost geologically examining temporal stakes that mark the moments we have forcefully imposed our humanity onto the american project where the country wanted to acknowledge this or not.

And, thanks to Saidiya Hartman, I’ve been thinking about Black women who reject patriarchal orders of respectability and, how like perennial flowers and gems we are (literally). I’ve been building a very gorgeous rock collection and then contending with the violent extraction applied so I could have my cute little rocks! Who knows where all of this research will end up. I really need LA’s Natural History Museum to open back up, please.

So, basically, I am in sponge mode, just trying to learn and think. I’m also teaching myself how to draw in a different way. That’s pretty embarrassing right now, but hopefully in a couple of years, I’ll have something to show for that! (fingers crossed).

I dream a lot about being able to make films again. I won’t do it until I know my entire cast and crew can be totally safe so that we can focus on making instead of not dying. We are nowhere near that climate yet. So I’m just plotting, planning, and writing grants.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

Last year I did several screenings at Rotterdam Film Festival under the invitation of Julian Ross. During the Q&A I mentioned that several of the films that had just screened had been rejected by nearly every major festival in the world back when I’d made them. I was ruminating on how sometimes you have to make work for an audience you hope for, because the audience that exists cannot see what you are doing. I feel lucky that my work is a bit more legible now.

After the screening, a group of young Brazilian Black women filmmakers encircled me and told me that THEY are the audience for my work, that my work was waiting for them. … I have no words for what that means to me.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?

I start with things I love. Whether it’s a person, music plant, book, place, or structure — I try to deeply understand those things, I try to really see and hear them. Sometimes I have to make something, in order to move closer to understanding. As I do this, a body of work begins to emerge. A video, a drawing, an event, a recording, a broadsheet, a thread on the IG, whatever … For me, it’s always about having more questions. Having said that though, I’m not terribly interested in offering correct answers or directives. People want that stuff, we all want answers and the dogma to tell us how to doing right thing, but I think just offering space is also very generative.

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.