Xaviera Simmons 
and the Art of Endurance


Embedded with commentary and reflections on history, art and life, Xaviera Simmons’ Number 16 (2013), is a mesmerizing and demanding video work, on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The 60-minute split-screen piece presents side-by-side performances, one by the Brooklyn-based artist, who creates an abstract expressionist painting; the other by a female vocalist, who sings her heart out.

The work opens with Simmons, on the right, hurling feathers and other objects at a black background, as the singer, on the left, embarks on a repertory of songs ranging from Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) to Shane Filan’s Today’s Not Yesterday.

Next, to the accompaniment of the singer’s strenuous vocals, Simmons flings a stream of bright red paint at the surface and follows up with successive applications of blue, white and black. She continues to pelt the backdrop with objects, as well as paint, adding more feathers, substances including flour or talc, shredded paper, playing cards, and items that crash and break.

As a dominant palette of red, white and blue takes hold, a narrative begins to emerge—of violence, bloodshed and struggle, ascendance and suppression. Over and over, black is overcome by white, then returns, in a back-and-forth punctuated by spurts of red and pours of blue.

Witnessing the drama presented by this sequencing of different colors is like watching an abstract reenactment of African-American history, from the dawn of slavery, to the struggles and  triumphs—of the Civil Rights movement and ensuing decades.

The boisterous soundtrack becomes nerve wracking, to say the least, over the course of the video’s 60-minute run. But the singer’s contribution is essential to the work’s message. Personifying the persistence of the black fight for freedom, as well as the creative expressions that helped sustain the struggle, she will not be silenced.

A seminal experience of Simmons’ artistic development occurred in her teenage years, when she walked the route of the transatlantic slave trade in the U.S. and Africa. It made her think, she said in an interview with Flatt magazine, “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.”

Simmons simultaneously explores multiple themes in Number 16. The flashes of violence in her hurling of objects and throwing of paint raise the issue of painting’s inadequacy to capture the magnitude of historical events. There are also elements of artistic homage woven throughout, and not just to Jackson Pollock. As she brandishes cans of spray paint between episodes of pouring and flinging, Simmons points to Jean Michel Basquiat and the guerrilla expressionism of street artists.

The artwork that emerges from this hour-long dual performance is merely a residue. The meaning of the work resides in its creation, and all the ideas and emotions summoned during the process.  ο

Xaviera Simmons’ Number 16 continues at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through June 7. Hours are 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. For more information, 816-753-5784 or www.kemperart.org.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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