NORTH ADAMS — The privileged and the pampered can suffer from a poverty of imagination. They are not called to dream beyond what they already have. But it’s also true that those who lack don’t always recognize their blessings.
Cauleen Smith’s exhibition, “We Already Have What We Need,” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, flips the script on privilege. Yes, the cosseted, wealthy white folks hold too much power and wealth in their tight little fists — this show does not ignore those dynamics. But the hopes, the dreams, the daring creativity, and the ties of community and family shared by people who have been oppressed forge an ulterior strength. Smith’s work sanctifies that.
The exhibition opens with a short video, “Spin.” A barefoot black girl in a superhero’s cape twirls happily on a sidewalk. Afrofuturist jazz keyboardist and mystic Sun Ra plays “The Sound of Joy” on the soundtrack; this video is the picture of joy.
Smith, now 51, is herself an Afrofuturist, reckoning the damages of the past and embracing the cultural richness of the African diaspora to imagine a better future. She started her career in the 1990s as a filmmaker, but Hollywood wasn’t receptive to black women filmmakers, so she found her way to galleries and museums.
Elements pop off her screens and into the gallery, and films are broken up and distributed around the space. The resulting installations are less linear and more immersive, less a story and more an experience.
“We Already Have What We Need,” the exhibition’s enveloping and vaulting title piece, uses space, scale, projection, and sculptural assemblage to shuffle several murmuring, hallucinatory, and archetypal scenes. Five 22-foot-tall vertical video screens hang like walls diagonally through the gallery. Among them are five tabletop assemblages, each a little altar with treasured objects — books, bonsai, African sculptures, feathers — set in front of video monitors playing landscapes, cityscapes, and submarine-scapes. CCTV cameras mounted on the tables capture these tableaus, and project them onto the large screens.
Spatially, “We Already Have What We Need” is maze-like; you don’t know what you will find around the next screen. The tabletop piece beside you may appear on a large screen at the other end of the gallery. This has an almost mythic effect. You move through time from one section to the next, and then what you saw minutes before arises like a memory, but on a grander scale or a much more intimate one than before. Time become a spiral, a net in which everything is linked, oscillating between concrete details and expansive dream-space.
Some of the landscape videos come from Hollywood films such as “Thelma and Louise,” but now they’re dominated by the bold silhouettes of African figurines. Whose landscapes are these? I found myself thinking, mildly uneasy in the face of a familiar place popping up behind an unfamiliar tableau. Who, here, is the hero? Who is the god? Yet Smith’s small, orderly assemblages summoned me back to the dear things of the real world.
God told Moses, “No man can see my face and live.” Smith’s skillful use of space diverts us because what she wants us to look at is too big, or painful, or glorious. We can only perceive it through labyrinths.
Her more direct one-channel videos divert with symbol rather than space, offering peripheral views of the pervasive loss the black community has faced. “Black and Blue Over You (After Bas Jan Ader for Ishan)” refers to the Dutch artist Ader’s 1974 film “Primary Time.” Here, as in that film, the artist simply arranges flowers. Smith’s bouquets are black and blue, bruised and funereal. They recall painter Jennifer Packer’s achingly elegiac floral still lifes, alive with love and despair. Smith’s, in their constant rearrangement, also express grief’s ruminative anxiety.
In “Remote Viewing,” an excavator appears as a monstrous villain, digging a hole and shoving into it a one-room schoolhouse — seat of learning, shelter to children. A mother and son bear witness.
The exhibition pamphlet tells us the video was inspired by a true story of a white town that buried its black schoolhouse. Its title attests to the detachment of so many of us watching the news in our armchairs as neglect, devastation, and violent oppression flicker across the screen.
Not all the works in “We Already Have What We Need” are videos. Smith’s “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989-2019,” drawings of books on black paper, reads like a revised canon, the sidelined nourishment from authors such as Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston (alongside books about desert wildlife and art) that the children in that entombed schoolhouse should have been reading all along.
Why is the girl in “Spin” so exuberant, when schools are buried and communities burdened? When innocent black men are killed by police? When so many black and brown people in America today feel more threatened than respected?
Because Smith, at least, still has hope. Hope in making things, hope in naming and describing the darkness, in reaching out a hand. That hope has driven the work of black artists before her, and it casts a light into the future. Smith holds up a lantern, and it shines for us all.
CAULEEN SMITH: WE ALREADY HAVE WHAT WE NEED
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, through April 2020. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org