A photographer, sculptor and performance artist, Xaviera Simmons knows no boundaries. She hung out with squatters on New York’s Lower East Side when she was still in her teens; walked the transatlantic slave trade route through America and Africa before she could vote; and studied acting for two years, at an age when most young people would be partying…all to make her a better artist. Fresh off solo shows and projects at The Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of Modern Art, and Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Simmons recently sat down with FLATT contributor Paul Laster to discuss how the various media and genres she explores get remixed into something new.
A photographer, sculptor, and performance artist, Xaviera Simmons knows no boundaries. She hung out with squatters on New York’s Lower East Side when she was still in her teens; walked though transatlantic slave trade route through America and Africa before she could vote; and studied acting for two years, at an age when most young people would be partying…all to make her a better artist. Fresh off solo shows and projects at The Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of Modern Art, and Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Simmons recently sat down with FLATT contributor Paul Laster to discuss how the various media and genres she explores get remixed into something new.
PAUL LASTER: When did you first become interested in art?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t an artist. My mother was a writer and my father owned funeral homes, which made them very strange companions. We didn’t have much money so I had to make my own doll clothes. I was an only child and was always being creative to occupy my time. My father gave me a Polaroid camera, but I never got any film. That was really significant. I had a camera that I could never use, even though I wanted to use it so badly. That’s when artistic interests started developing, but I really began practicing when I was in high school. I went to a boarding school in Connecticut that had a photography darkroom and I was in it most of the time.
PAUL LASTER: How did growing up in New York City help shape your development as an artist?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: When I was around 13, I lived with my grandmother in Harlem for a year and I would walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I remember feeling intimidated paying just 25 cents rather than the suggested donation, but I had a ritual of going there. My mom would also take me to the Museum of Modern Art and other museums. I was pretty good in school, but I became an alternative teenager. I was a vegetarian so I hung out with the other vegetarian and DIY kids, who were mostly punk rockers and heavy metal heads. I would meet up with friends on the Lower East Side at the art space ABC No Rio, even though it was a dump. Most of my friends were squatting. I had a home, but we moved around a lot.
PAUL LASTER: Did the moving around lead you to become nomadic as an adult?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: We lived in Harlem until I was 13, then we lived in Queens, then on Roosevelt Island and Manhattan again and then I went to boarding school. I’ve never had the house that you remember since you were born and you go to the attic and there are all of these memories. I don’t have that experience. I became more stable after high school. My studio is my old apartment in Brooklyn that I’ve had since 1995. But I still have this nomadic spirit. I did a pilgrimage and have been traveling ever since. I think the nomadic spirit comes from my parents. My father left Georgia when his parents were sharecroppers to come to New York and start something. Even though my mom was from here, she left her tight-knit family to do her own thing and have a child at a young age. They were both rebellious people and nomadic in their own way, but I’m probably the ultimate. It’s always been easy for me to leave a place.
PAUL LASTER: You mentioned a pilgrimage. What was it and where did it take you?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: A group of monks from Massachusetts organized a walking pilgrimage to retrace the transatlantic slave trade. Because my mom practiced Buddhism, it’s always been part of my life. I found out about the pilgrimage and instantly knew that I wanted to go. I was an assistant to photographer Walter Chin, and happy with the job, but I left it and a boyfriend to go on the journey. I was a year-and-a-half with the monks and then I hitched throughout the east coast of Africa with a friend for another year. We walked eight hours a day, everyday. It was a walking meditation.
PAUL LASTER: What was the route?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: We went from Massachusetts to New Orleans to Key West. From there we took a boat through the Caribbean Islands, which have had a huge impact on my work. There was an offshoot that went to Brazil by boat, but I came back to the States for two weeks to fundraise because we lived communally by donations and shared our resources. I rejoined the pilgrimage in Gambia and we walked to Nigeria, where we took a plane to South Africa. The pilgrimage came to an end in 2000 when we met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the leaders of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
PAUL LASTER: What did you personally gain from the pilgrimage?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: It ended 14 years ago, but it was such an epic experience that there are aspects of it that I’m still uncovering. The main thing that I learned was how to share resources and live communally, which I later realized was not the way I want to live. It was an experience to think about faith and about each step you take as a meditation. You develop an animal-like instinct because you’re walking in cities and on highways while chanting in prayer. Each moment has an impact. Each parcel of land has a history. You’re thinking about the consequences of European history, the consequences of American history, the consequences of the Native Americans, the consequences of the slave trade, the consequences of the immigrants that came through Ellis Island and the consequences of the Civil Rights movement because you’re having nightly conversations, which roused so many raw emotions.
PAUL LASTER: What made you decide to go to Bard after the pilgrimage?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: I went to Bard straight out of high school, even though my family said that they couldn’t afford it. They wanted me to go to a community college, but I was really attracted to Bard. I had to quit after one year because I owed the school money. I went to work for Walter Chin and then went on the pilgrimage. When I returned I worked as a waitress to pay off my debt to Bard and eventually went back. I knew that I wanted to study with Stephen Shore again; I knew he was the best. Larry Fink was there, too. I was passionate about their photography and the school. I love the landscapes of the Hudson River School. There’s something very mystical about the Hudson Valley. I felt attuned to ancestors there.
PAUL LASTER: Why did you decide to study theatre after graduating Bard?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: One of my teachers at Bard, the photographer An-My Lê, once told me that my characters needed to be clearer and more believable. It made me think that I should study acting. I started the Whitney Independent Study Program right out of Bard and then, simultaneously, started studying theatre with Maggie Flanigan, who has a conservatory, where I took a two-year intensive program. She really helped me to be open and to be prepared…an actor prepares, an actor is ready. In the end, I realized that I had worked with Maggie not to be a better actor, but to be a better director. I needed to know how to direct people better and I needed to understand how to bring out people’s emotions. That’s what a director does.
PAUL LASTER: It seems like you started making self-portraits en plein air that took what you learned in the theater and integrated that into your love of landscape. What does landscape mean to you and how do you try to approach it in a way that is fresh?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: I’m still working that out. I feel like I’m still trying to understand the landscape portion of the work. I’m at this place now with my work where it goes in cycles. At one point, I’ll be making sculptures; at another point I’ll be making studio photographs or performance-based work. It’s been more than a year since I’ve made landscapes. I feel a little distanced from them and I actually feel a little fear. I use to feel that I had a handle on them, with all of these characters and what they meant. Now I’m at a place where I don’t want to think about them. At the time I was making them I was trying to create characters that I’d never seen in these landscapes. I was thinking about the history of painting and photography and characters that didn’t populate or own those spaces.
Now I’m not sure about how to engage the landscape and be successful at it. I have to go back in and think of it with a sense of future. I don’t want to hang on to past tropes. When I think of an artist like Isaac Julian and his photos and films of characters in the landscape, there is always a feeling of the future. I guess I’ve broadened my notion of what a landscape can be. My word pieces can be landscapes. Some photographs are landscapes. I’m thinking about the studio as a landscape. The characters I’ve put in many idyllic places I’m now thinking of putting in the studio and having them perform actions that have a presence of the future.
Whenever I think of a landscape—and it could be specific at this point to my studio practice—I always think of what is underneath. What could have previously existed here that we haven’t seen before? What is it that I could be in conversation with? My practice is really about being in conversation with other artists that I have in my head. Sometimes it’s with my peers and sometimes it’s a conversation with the Hudson River School. Sometimes it’s a conversation with people’s work I thought I didn’t like, such as Paul McCarthy or Jason Rhoades—two artists I’ve grown to love. To me, they mean landscape. In my mind, Mickalene Thomas’ practice is a landscape. I feel that artists have a landscape or thematic core that they are working from. I’m always in conversation with different artists at different points. That means landscape to me.
PAUL LASTER: What are your thoughts on portraiture? When you were in Sri Lanka you held workshops with people to expand their idea of what portraiture could be. What is it about portraiture that fascinates you and where are you trying to take it?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: Portraiture, landscape…these words are interchangeable to me. I’m trying to combine parts of different artistic practices, to almost force the portrait onto the photograph even if the face is not there, even if the figure is not there. I’m moving my studio practice into something more abstract. My show at the Aldrich Museum was messy and more abstract, especially in comparison to where I started. It was focused on the figure, focused on the land, and focused on the perfect photograph. Now I’m more interested in using things that I learned in sculpture and installation and turning that into a photograph, which is what the index pieces. The word pieces are about photography—breaking it down into text and making that into the sculpture that looks like a photograph to me.
Working in Sri Lanka, they told me that they don’t have a tradition of portraiture in their culture. For them, portraits only existed in the form of the Buddha. Obviously, there are Muslims there too, but the primary population is Buddhist. I tried to break down the way I work; I think of text as portraiture. For Sri Lanka, we added movement, which is theater-based. We used photography, which is straight portraiture. We tried to get the students and adults to explain how they would construct a portrait and then break down the elements of what it meant. It was revolutionary in Sri Lanka, but maybe not in New York.
PAUL LASTER: You’ve previously mentioned in interviews that all of your work begins with writing—your photographs, your performances and obviously, your sculptural text pieces. How does that process begin?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: I’m not a very good draughtsman. I can sketch and make stick figures, but I usually come up with ideas through words. I’ll see a color or a work by someone else, and it really gets me going. I’ve been obsessed with this one image from John Zorn’s opera, Monodrama. It’s an image of a woman with her hand raised as she discovers that her lover is dead, while rose petals come floating down on the scene. I’ve been so obsessed with it over the past few years that my studio practice has responded to it. I began writing out my response to that moment—imagining what the text and set would be like if it was deconstructed. I deconstruct things that I see and write them out and make them.
When you work with a 4 x 5 camera you have to plan everything. It’s a clunky, cumbersome thing. Ansel Adams knew he was going to go to that mountain that day. I would write everything out, but I would try to give myself more freedom with the photograph. I wouldn’t always know which place, but I would bring enough materials for the character. When I found the right landscape, I knew what action the character would take. That goes down again to an actor being prepared. It’s not frozen in the moment Garry Winogrand. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. I’m more of a Jeff Wall.
PAUL LASTER: As your practice has expanded, you have also engaged in more research. What enjoyment do you get out of the process of research?
XAVIERA SIMMONS: That’s everything. That’s the most fun. Sometimes I think maybe I was supposed to be a researcher. When you’re researching you spend most of the time reading and observing. Your brain gets to construct images, construct words, construct sense and construct movement. We live in a different time with computers. We don’t really have to imagine—we can just look it up and its right there. I still enjoy reading and going to libraries. I was an only child so I had to go somewhere after school. I went to the library everyday to do my homework. I started to think abstractly through words, through reading and through language, through research. Research is like choosing your own adventure or letting the work have its way with you. I need that play.
Right now I’m studying how to be a herbalist. It’s giving me information that I can put into the sculptures and the photographs. You take in information and you let it give nutrients to your body, brain and soul. Some people do it really fast, like a Dash Snow, who probably took in really fast and put out really fast. And there are artists like Kara Walker who take in a little slower and when they digest and let out it’s really exquisite and detailed. I want to be somewhere in the middle of Snow and Walker. I love that lust and rush, but I also love craft and meticulous care put into the work. That’s the kind of landscape that interests me, the one that’s in between those realms.
Some people do it really fast, like a Dash Snow,
Who probably took in really fast and put out really fast.
And there are artists like Kara Walker, that take in
A little slower, and when they digest and let out,
It’s really exquisite and detailed. I want to be somewhere
In the middle of Snow and Walker.
I love that lust and rush, but I also love craft
And meticulous care put into the work.
That’s the kind of landscape that interests me,
The one that’s in between those realms.