At the Benton, Guest Curator Jheanelle Brown is Transmitting Generational Generosity

By Ben Lauren PZ ‘25

From a small foyer of the Benton Museum of Art emanates the jazz music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. As the visitor is drawn to the sound, they are introduced to the world of three artists, sharing a fundamental optimism across generations.

According to guest curator Jheanelle Brown, Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’s recordings were her soundtrack during the creation of a new exhibit at the Benton running until July 23 titled, “Transmissions, or these histories we lest not forget”. With limited space allotted to her, Brown still compiles a series of works across several mediums by Cauleen Smith, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, and Sophia Nahli Allison all under the overarching theme of “transmissions”, which Brown expands upon in her gallery description.

“These transmissions from the past combine the deeply personal and spiritual with collective liberation work … rendering history and potential futures that, if heeded, can prove instructive as we chart paths forward,” Brown wrote.

The gallery is headlined by the museum’s acquisition of Smith’s 2018 film, Sojourner. Transmissions to the past appear in the film through a number of methods including its opening minutes portraying a beautifully saturated perspective through 16-millimeter film.

Smith follows up with a second half set in California, paying homage and merging histories by recreating an image taken by Bill Ray at the Watts Towers during the Watts Riots in 1965. In Sojourner, Smith reimagines the photograph, which was all men, as entirely women located within the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California. Purifoy founded the Watts Towers Art Center.

According to Brown, transmissions come through most extensively the film’s second half, during which excerpts from the written works of Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, Rebecca Cox Jackson, and the Combahee River Collective are all broadcasted to a group of women of color in the present day through an analogue radio.

“The excavation and uplifting of a Black woman through history through this analog media style is what forms the core [of this film],” Brown said.

Music additionally plays a central role in bringing the past and present together through a score heavily featuring Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. Musical influences are present throughout Smith’s art at large, evident in her piece “Black Utopia LP,” a collage album she recently performed as part of a three night stay which began on March 9 at the Hammer Museum. Smith explained how musical form inspires her visual work.

“[Music] is very instructive in terms of how to structure time, how to deploy affective tones, how to take a participant on a journey,” Smith said. “I often structure my films like various musical structures, like a blues song or symphony movements for example.

Much like with her interest in music, Smith regularly practices a sort of visual sampling in her work. This idea defines BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989–2019, her series of gouache drawings of various texts primarily written by Black women. Brown explained why she brought two of these pieces, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being to the Benton.

“They’re literally just drawings of these covers, but they [are] in keeping with this [idea] of stewarding history.” Brown said. “This cataloging that Cauleen does, through drawing these things that are influential to her, is in dialogue with the films … Those two books are also very important to me.”

Smith’s desire to transmit across generations is furthered by the other artists Brown has brought to the exhibit.

One of these other artists highlighted in the exhibition is Hunt-Ehrlich, whose film Spit on the Broom is playing alongside Sojourner. Spit on the Broom is a surrealist documentary on the United Order of Tents, an organization aligned with the Underground Railroad.

As much of the group’s work was designed to remain hidden, Hunt-Ehrlich prioritized using only what could be found on public record to tell their story, transmitting them to the present by reading them aloud. Brown sees Hunt-Ehrlich as key to the film’s identity.

“Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s work is definitely devoted to surrealist documentary and how to uplift history,” Brown said. “[She finds] a way to present history that we have to treat with a certain level of opacity or camouflage because it should [remain] secret for [its] mission.”

Projected on a floating silk screen opposite the two films is Nahli Allison’s photograph, The Rapture or a Resurrection, part of a series of self portraits titled, Dreaming Gave Us Wings

Although the photo looks digitally edited, it was taken live, accomplished through an unknown process that according to Brown, Nahli Allison refuses to reveal. Brown described how Nahli Allison’s work unintentionally creates a perfect continuum with the quote from Cox Jackson’s memoirs used in Sojourner.

“Sofia’s picture literally is like a visual manifestation of [what] Rebecca Cox Jackson says, but the thing is, Sophia didn’t know about Dr. Jackson,” Brown said. “She made this photo which is like a perfect representation of this kind of spiritual, transcendent experience that Rebecca has … narrated in her memoirs.”

Brown added how she feels Sophia’s piece ties all three artists together.

“Sophia continues where Cauleen, Madeline, and Sophia are at different ages” Brown said. “It creates a nice little round kind of mix of … Black women specifically, [that are] at different stages in their life.”

Although Sojourner has been put on display in museums across the country since its release, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Smith believes that it is the work of Hunt-Ehrlich and Nahli Allison that set it apart from prior interpretations.

“I love the way [Brown] put my work in conversation with a new generation of artists and the connections made evident,” Smith said.

Ultimately, “Transmissions” is an exhibit about drawing and building connections across these generations of artists, academics, and women of color generally, an idea Smith summed up with her belief in “radical generosity”.

“I like to talk about the systems of radical generosity that are evident in the creative and social projects of others,” Smith said. “I try to learn from them and emulate their strategies and tactics …I find the act of giving-away … to be supremely difficult when living in a society that rewards extraction, theft, coercion, exploitation, and hoarding. What would happen if our economy was based on gifting instead of extracting? Let’s find out!”

Cauleen Smith, Sojourner (still), 2018.

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