Visiting Et al.’s Chinatown gallery feels a bit like entering a secret contemporary art clubhouse. Without any street-level signage, you have to know there’s an exhibition waiting for you through the door of Union Cleaners, down a narrow hallway and a set of wooden stairs.
Visiting sisters and brothers, the current show of videos by Cauleen Smith, Jaguar Mary/Jocelyn Taylor and Ayanna U’Dongo, adds to the clubhouse feel a sensation of traveling back in time, specifically to the early ’90s. It’s a sensation both jarring and familiar; artists don’t make videos quite like this anymore, in terms of either aesthetics or tone. Bound by common explorations of desire, black femininity and masculinity, queer identity politics and the possibility of communicating through the medium itself, the works in sisters and brothers are revelatory. They pointed to gaping holes in my knowledge of recent art history I didn’t even know I had.
Curated by Jackie Clay, who was recently appointed director of Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Alabama, the show is anchored by Mary’s 1994 video Frankie & Jocie. A conversation between a black lesbian and her straight brother about their relationship, the objectification of women and socially accepted homophobia frames the mesmerizing 18-minute video. Intermingled with audio of their phone call are interviews with other black lesbians, speaking to shared experiences of discrimination, familial love or condemnation, street harassment and ultimately violence.
Mary’s second piece in the show, part of a bank of four monitors with accompanying headphones, takes the conversation about black female visibility into a surreal, performative space — like a Mika Rottenberg video, but years earlier. The seven-minute Armide 2000 depicts black female bodybuilders, busy working out, as objects of swooning desire for waifish young white men wearing housekeeper dresses. The piece echoes, almost shot-for-shot, a 1987 short film by Jean-Luc Godard — with gender roles reversed. In both shorts, the admirers’ ardent attention to the bodies pumping iron around them makes their invisibility completely pathetic and strangely affecting.
Cauleen Smith’s three-minute 1993 piece The Message (Sapphire Tapes 1) is similarly “a tape about lust and consumption,” the narrator says. She directs a black man through various poses for the camera, noting his discomfort with being gazed upon and admired.
And two videos by Ayanna U’Dongo collage multiple sources and now-retro video effects to address love, sexuality, cultural identity and expressions of frustration, all in the span of four minutes each. Which is to say — sisters and brothers will not overly occupy your Friday or Saturday (gallery hours are 1-5pm).
Here, once again, I will extol the virtues of showing up in person for your Bay Area art experiences. Of the three artists included in sisters and brothers, only Mary’s videos live on the internet in their entirety. It’s easy to forget, 12 years into YouTube, how much important work exists in avant garde film catalogs, just waiting for a well-curated exhibition to pull it back into public consciousness — and public conversation.
‘sisters and brothers’ is on view at Et al. in San Francisco through April 22 (gallery hours Friday and Saturday, 1-5pm and by appointment). For more information, click here.