Artist Profile – Ja'Tovia Gary

Published on 2018-09-11

Artwork featured in the salon – 'An Ecstatic Experience' (2015) Single-channel video with Audio, Edition of 7. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ja’Tovia Gary uses filmmaking to challenge traditional notions of representation, race, gender, sexuality, and power. She’s worked with Spike Lee, Shola Lynch, and Ken Burns and exhibited in Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, MoMA, The Hammer Museum, Brooklyn Museum, UnionDocs, ICA Boston, MoMA PS1, and the Made in New York Media Center.

Gary started her career as an actor. But she was disheartened by the limited roles created for women, especially women of color. “In Grand Theft Auto IV, I was the voice of a drug dealer’s battered girlfriend, and you as a player would opt to save me or not,” she says. “I wanted control over my image.” 

In her films, Gary takes portraits of her world with input from a healthy variety of sources. She found the rapper Cakes Da Killa on Tumblr and pursued the surprisingly shy diva for a documentary about his sexually-charged performances. Her self-portrait project, Evidence of Things Not Seen, is told from the perspective of her parents, grandparents, siblings, and even exes. 

History is another favorite source to tap. She’s inspired by “the idea of transgenerational trauma,” she tells Filmmaker Magazine. “Trauma can be imprinted in the DNA of our ancestors and transmitted down the line. Are we trapped in these repeated intrinsic patterns or can we access transgenerational wisdom and free ourselves from them?” 

An Ecstatic Experience is a deep dive into this question. The film opens with Ruby Dee (famous for A Raisin in the Sun) performing a monologue based on the life of Fannie Moore, a slave whose biography is preserved in the Federal Writers Project and the Library of Congress. Gary scratched the celluloid of this footage to make hand-drawn animations: a box holding her in as she starts her story, a halo of flittering triangles as she says “the Lord has showed me the way,” ecstatic fireworks exploding from the corners of the frame as she repeats “I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!” 

The elated performance rolls into footage of vintage church services and modern-day Baltimore in flames. Activist Assata Shakur is asked about her escape from a maximum security prison, and answers "It was a clean escape, no one was hurt, I planned it as well as I could plan it... and that's all I got to say about it." The film ends with Black Lives Matter protest footage and police in combat gear. The work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and was featured in the museum’s recent exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest (2017).

Artist profile by Katheryn Thayer for The Current.

'An Ecstatic Experience' is featured in 'The Current // Truth' curated by Tina Rivers Ryan from September 6 – 14th, 2018. Write to for a visit, or become a member of The Current to attend our private salons: