Exploring and Troubling the Boundaries with Xaviera Simmons

Ahead of her showing at Art Basel in Miami Beach, we talked to the renowned artist about her newest work and what she wants viewers to understand about the scope of American history.

By Latria Graham

Back in 1998, after working for a number of years as a fashion photographer’s assistant, New York City native Xaviera Simmons was searching for a new way to express her creativity. A chance meeting with a group of Buddhist monks would change the direction of her art. The contemporary multimedia artist found herself compelled to join the group’s pilgrimage retracing one of the transatlantic slave trade routes. Along the way, they stopped, meditated, prayed and chanted their way down the East Coast before making their way across the Atlantic.

Her journey wouldn’t end until 2000 in South Africa. From there, she hitchhiked through East Africa, eventually making her way to Ethiopia. As she met new people, experienced their culture, learned their customs and tried new food, she searched the faces of those around her for something familiar, for the place her ancestors might have come from. She wanted to know where she belonged.

“African-Americans identify with a continent, but African people, they don’t,” Simmons says. “They’re from Togo, they’re from Benin, they’re from Nigeria, they’re from South Africa. They are that, and then they’re in their tribe, and then they’re their person. Europeans are not just Europeans. They’re French, they’re Spanish. But African-Americans . . . we’re basically the result of American history.”

After reaching this revelation, Simmons knew the work she had to do was home. “I had to ask, ‘Who am I here in this country? Who are my people?’ We don’t have a motherland. Africa is 54 different countries. There is no place in Africa that I could ever go that would be my home. I’ve been all over Africa. Where can I go, and it’s like home for me?”

She made her way back to New York City in order to find out. Twenty years after her initial pilgrimage, the questions of identity, belonging and the transient nature of people still drives her creative process, and that thematic chord runs through the majority of Simmons’s work, whether it is text-based sculpture, installations, photography or performance-based art…

Sundown (Number Thirteen).

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