Smith’s art and filmmaking has always been driven by histories of Black brilliance that resonate across time. Listening closely to the spiritual and musical philosophies of composer, performer, and swamini Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (1937–2007) has inspired Smith’s recent works. Smith’s cinematic collages connect Coltrane’s transformative visions to others who create spaces for liberation from the nineteenth century to the present.
In Pilgrim, Coltrane’s experimental jazz piano unfurls as Smith’s camera moves solemnly through the white ashram buildings and hillside setting of the Hindu community Coltrane founded in California. These scenes soon merge with the gothic spirals of Watts Towers, mid-twentieth-century folk sculptures in southern Los Angeles, before fading into a Shaker cemetery in upstate New York, where a pre–Civil War religious group lived the values of racial and gender equality.
Sojourner expands this mapping of utopic possibility. While visuals touch down at significant sites across Philadelphia, Chicago, and California, voice-overs explicitly align Coltrane’s mystical writings with those of Rebecca Cox Jackson, a Black Shaker eldress whom Smith found had described astral journeys a hundred years earlier, similar to Coltrane’s. Their voices, and readings of the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 manifesto, seem to be transmitted via old radios to a collective of futuristically fabulous young women of color. They carry bright banners with poetic phrases along a beach, behind a protest, and outside Watts Towers Arts Center, a community hub founded by the late sculptor Noah Purifoy, whose Outdoor Desert Art Museum near Joshua Tree, California, serves as their concluding location. After gathering within and winding around Purifoy’s large assemblages, their final pose is a feminist twist on a famed photo from 1966 of stylish young men gathered around Watts Towers.
Audio Note: Set to a live album recording, the video begins with unseen audience applause and Alice Coltrane’s voice introducing “One for the Father” as a song she composed and dedicates to John Coltrane. Passionate instrumental piano then rumbles and wavers for the next seven minutes. Heavy low chords and delicate trilling build into rolling, rapidly ascending and descending free jazz exploration of the full keyboard. As the song and video end, audience applause accompanies the closing credits.
To the right of the section text is a bench and small projected video in a purple-painted corner gallery. The video opens with a black screen, as one hears applause and Coltrane’s voice, followed by footage of a bird in a barren tree against a blue sky. Green text spelling "pilgrim” flashes on the screen. The camera pans across a double-tiered organ encased in dusty plexiglass. Shots cut between its black and white keys, wooden surfaces, and a handwritten letter. Different angles emphasize the play of shadow and raking light on the instrument. As views expand, the organ is seen at the front of a sunlit congregation room surrounded by large, framed photos of a dark-skinned smiling woman, Alice Coltrane. Static shots capture details of the room: blue carpet, yellow floor pillows, scattered books, and musical instruments. Moving outside, two Black women show the camera the lush trees and white domed buildings of this spiritual retreat. A far-off view of the main ashram building merges in double exposure with shaking blue film footage showing a cluster of spiky silhouetted spires; sun-flares in the camera add sparkle to these circling shots of LA’s Watts Towers. The double exposure of the ashram is replaced by a merging of Watts Towers with a dark green tree that ultimately transitions the viewer to a different landscape—green grassy fields and white fences surround wooden farm buildings. Close-ups of ferns, cows, and wildflowers intermingle with the growing intensity and beats of the music. A handheld camera moves through an uneven graveyard, its view landing on the headstone of “Mother Ann Lee.” The final image is of a street-side sign reading “Shaker Cemetery,” filtered by red and yellow light flares, before fading to black and showing the credits. Projected to the right of these images, throughout, is a portrait shot of interpretive performer Trevor Shannon, a Black man with short dreads and a blue button-up shirt, who uses a mix of expressive gestures, piano playing pantomime and ASL to convey the soundtrack.
If you turn so this video is to your back and walk away from the screen, to your right is the glass door entrance to a darkened video room. A haptic bench sits to the right of the door, and another non-haptic bench is to the left. Disco balls are clustered along the left wall, and a large projected video appears on the wall straight ahead. The video’s opening scenes are shot on old film stock, so the images are slightly fuzzy, square projections within the larger black screen. First, horses run around a plot of land with cars driving around, followed by views of various townhouse buildings, and a historic marker noting John Coltrane’s residence. Cut to older buildings, gravestones in grassy countryside that appeared in Pilgrim. People wave patterned flags—or semaphores—outside of a community center, on rocky ledges, and in wildflower fields. Shots of white ashram buildings and framed photos of Alice Coltrane echo scenes from Pilgrim. At four and a half minutes, the image becomes full screen and crisp, no longer fuzzy film stock. The camera pans down over LA rooftops, and then the spires of Watts Towers, to find a group of young women of color in bright, stylish outfits, walking around the base of the towers, carrying neon orange banners with black text. One woman extends the antenna of an old radio, and as she walks, she leads the group—with a quick cut—from urban streets to a rocky beach. They sit and listen together and pose with banners among the rocks. At the nine-minute mark, the scene shifts to a city gathering; Black women organizers hand out flyers and speak out of a megaphone while street life continues and passersby stop to engage. The orange banners are seen in the background, held by various activists. Around eleven minutes, the camera cuts to two more futuristically dressed young women sitting atop a sun-kissed sculpture, listening to another old radio. The camera moves closer and flies over their heads to show pairs of women walking among additional funky, large, colorful assemblage sculptures in a desert during peak golden hour. A woman enters a circular hut-sculpture and hugs comrades found inside who are also listening to a handheld radio. More and more women walk between sculptures, convening in an open structure where they sit intently, facing a radio, as it broadcasts on Black feminism. Around fifteen minutes in, they spread out to further explore this outdoor desert museum. Those carrying banners line up, and another woman wanders alone to listen to the final statement over the radio. As this voice-over relays the words of the Lord, shots of the banners reveal their texts add up to repeat the Lord’s message, reading “At Eventide,” “Be so Big that Sky will learn Sky.” With these banners and a boombox-holder in the lead, the whole group proceeds across the desert to the closing music as the sun sets. They enter an open-air structure and assemble into a fierce, final pose, some seated, some standing defiant. They all face the camera with an air of determination, staring into the future. Credits roll.
As you exit the video room, turn to the right. High on the wall, about fifteen feet on the right, is the final piece.
As neon words light from the bottom to the top, they build the choral repetitions of “my life” that kick off Roy Ayers’s summer classic, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” (1976). Smith’s title offers a darker kind of repetition, recounting the names of eight trans women of color all killed within weeks of each other in 2020. Daring to live in the light as their true selves, these women’s names are now shouted at protests affirming that their lives matter even if their deaths go unsolved. Smith uses the song’s familiarity as a hook for considering complicity—when do you notice the violence, and when do you just sing along?
Cauleen Smith, born 1967, Riverside, CA
Sunshine (for Brayla, Merci, Shakiie, Draya, Tatiana, and Bree, Riah, Dominique…), 2020, neon, MDF, paint, gold-pleated chain link
Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán, Los Angeles
A wall-mounted neon light sign with a black background that reads “Sunshine in the my life, my life, my life, my life.” Vertically arranged, the words “Sunshine in the” are bright yellow, the first “my life” is orange, then red, then a white purple, then a fuller purple. The last “my life” is about half the size of the rest. A tangle of wires come out from the black panel and loops into an electrical box on the wall.
As you continue past the neon work, to your right, there is a closing title wall to your left and the gallery exit straight ahead.