In 2020 singer Moses Sumney was living in Asheville, North Carolina, preparing set lists for a tour while conceptualizing a long-form music video for his second studio release, grae, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. From this cloud a silver lining emerged: “I had to pivot to something I could do locally,” the performer recently shared. “I decided to take heed of my environment and what made the most sense was to go outside and gather my band. I got my hands and feet dirty and dug into where I was, and by doing that I was able to make something creatively that was unique to me and my vision.” With that simple foray into the wild, the film Blackalachia was born. 

The feature film, which originally premiered in December 2021 at the Pérez Art Museum during Art Basel Miami Beach, made its gallery debut at Nicola Vassell in New York on February 3. Blackalachia marks the singer’s directorial debut in an hour-long live performance that incorporates songs culled from Sumney’s first two studio albums, Aromanticism (2017) and grae (2020). It’s heavy on introspection and is akin to a visual journal that examines loneliness, otherness, identity, and the power structures that conspire to control how these states of being are defined. 

Film still from Blackalachia

The live performance includes 14 songs performed by Sumney, four bandmates, and a three-piece horn section. There is no audience — it’s just the musicians and the luscious North Carolina Appalachian mountains near Asheville, which Sumney has called home since 2018. The band’s sparse stage is punctuated with elaborate accents: a craggy tree branch festooned with local flora is fashioned into a mic stand that appears to grow from the earth up through the stage. It provides a proper perch from which Sumney croons his highly emotive lyrics. Throughout the performance aesthetic and sonic transitions set the tone, which toggles between light and darkness, day and night. Like Sumney’s live sets, the film “starts off a little mysterious and launches into high energy before going into the more cerebral, esoteric, deep emotional places,” he says, “but ‘Insula’ introduces the theme [of isolation] of the record.” The philosophical underpinnings of Blackalachia were inspired by writer Taiye Selasi, who also shares a writing credit on “Insula.” Her opening prose dissects the theme and reveals the etymological roots of the title. “Isolation comes from ‘insula,’ which means ‘island’. We are introducing the concept of isolation and the feeling of being islanded,” says Sumney. 

The film, much like the album grae, begins with lighter, more energized tracks, here accompanied by choreography. It opens with a tight shot of a lone butterfly, which segues into Sumney sprinting in a field that leads to the stage, where he performs “Insula.” His lyrics challenge audiences to think about solitude, loneliness, and otherness, while the manic synths contained in “Virile” and “Conveyor” inspire movement and dance as a ritual — the music has a cathartic feel that culminates in Sumney’s distorted vocals as he opine on otherness as a tool of power: “Dissatisfaction seems like the natural byproduct of identification. I truly believe that people who define you control you.”

Moses Sumney, “Red Fern Grows” (2020), digital print, 26 13/16 x 40 1/16 inches, edition of 3 plus 2 artist’s proofs (courtesy Nicola Vassell)

In the vocal interlude between “Conveyor “and “Quarrel” Sumney grapples with the origins of otherness and its byproduct of isolation. “I think isolation is not something I chose; it was a result of the conditions of my reality,” explains the artist. “I was an outlier socially, always strange, always a little bit different. I didn’t choose it. Now I feel like it’s a gift because it gives me access to the truth.” By reframing isolation Sumney wrests the power away from the negative connotations of loneliness and otherness. “As an artist, to embrace the truth is one of the most dedicated things you can do as part of your discipline. Now I’m appreciative of isolation. Isolation brings with it a lot of sadness, a lot of darkness, but it’s about embracing the darkness because without it I wouldn’t have access to the joy, and really the euphoric sense of joy from being alone.”

While some of these breakthroughs came to Sumney during the pandemic, his decision to relocate to Asheville in 2018 laid an important foundation for his connection to nature and the power of place. This move was four years in the making. 

“I tend to think a long time before I make decisions,” he notes. “I had developed a love for North Carolina. I passed through there on tour randomly and every year I would return faithfully to write, think, and to get away from city life. I lived in a cabin in the mountains outside of Asheville for a month with no internet, no telephone service. It was a dream of mine to have this modern-day Henry David Thoreau moment. It reoriented my brain in terms of what’s possible for my life.”

Film still from Blackalachia

The move charted a creative course that privileged Sumney with the freedom to explore new artistic realms. “I lived in San Bernardino, California; Accra, Ghana; Riverside, California; Los Angeles, London, and now Asheville, North Carolina. The biggest difference between all of those places is that the only one that I’ve lived in long-term and really chosen was Asheville, and so there is a certain sense of agency and freedom. I stayed [in LA] out of the obligation of wanting to build a career. It didn’t feel like a choice that I made, it felt like something I had to do. The most important moment was the choice to move to North Carolina.”

In Blackalachia, locality is more than a physical space; it’s a state of mind that influences one’s sense of self. “All experience is local,” Taiye Selasi has said. “All identity is experience.” To call Blackalachia a concert film doesn’t do justice to the circumstances that birthed it. Its presence in both museum and gallery spaces exposes new audiences to Sumney while providing the artist with different venues for visual storytelling. The Nicola Vassell presentation of the film is accompanied by photographs Sumney took that capture moments from the production. A photo titled “Where the Red Fern Grows” captures lighting orbs placed onstage during the performance, within which fern branches were placed; their faint shadows in the orbs evoke fossilized foliage suspended in amber. Other photographs in the show are self-portraits; these inspired Sumney to explore newfound narratives in photography. “I feel like I’m just getting started on a journey that feels like a portraiture practice, and I can’t wait to see where that goes.”

Film still from Blackalachia

Preserving these experiences both visually and physically includes leaving something behind that makes a place better than it was when you entered it. In creating Blackalachia and living in North Carolina, Sumney encourages two different groups of creatives who may find themselves struggling to define their art on their own terms. “I wanted to communicate to people who don’t live in small towns, who don’t live in North Carolina, the South — people who have a monochromatic concept of what the South is like — I want to communicate to them that there is space for them. There is space for them in America, in other parts of America for diversity of thought, diversity of identity, diversity of being.”

As art created in the South is recognized more broadly, without the need for artists to relocate, the local communities that foster and support their work also deserve to be celebrated and supported. “I want to help create opportunities for creative people in Asheville and other surrounding areas,” says Sumney. “I want to communicate to them that you don’t have to leave. Being happy is so much more important than being somewhere that will make you miserable for the shot of a career. The work that you will produce will be better regardless of if you are in a place that brings you joy.” While Blackalachia was born out of circumstance, it flourished from a place of fearlessness, vulnerability, and opportunity, encouraging us to cultivate our creative gardens wherever we may find them. 

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Colony Little

Colony Little is a Los Angeles–based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art. As a Bay Area native and long-term Southern California resident, she covers emerging contemporary art in California with...