Deanna Bowen's Art Imitates Life

Video Artist: Deanna Bowen, installation view of Gospel

Welcome back after my mini-hiatus. I took a much needed break to complete the final stages of my M.A. work and can gleefully say, "It's over!" I come back to writing here in a more relaxed state and with two letters, which, for the record, I shall not be putting at the end of my name for no good reason. Call it a performance, but I just may fold up my newly acquired (and overpriced) degree, stylishly wear it as a hat, and wave to shoppers at Kensington Market like the Queen...oh la-di-da.

But I digress. Seriously, during the past weeks, I happily found out that another artist-friend, Deanna Bowen, was also completing her studies and had her thesis work, along with artists Erika De Freitas and Dara Gelman, mounted at the University of Toronto in the 2008 Master of Visual Studies Graduate Exhibition. I can state quite confidently that Bowen is one of a handful of truly exemplary video-based artists in the city whose work continues to impress. Believe me when I say that her video projection, Imitation of Life, which was one part of her Gospel installation, was pretty much the show.

Karen Miranda Augustine: First, I've got to say that you have really developed a gorgeous editing style. Imitation of Life has got a really hypnotic rhythm to it. Years ago I saw your piece Sadomasochism at YYZ, standing in sand (that was cool). There's something about this piece that reminded me of that work. But this is much more slick. You seem to have come into your own style more deeply and it's really moving. I found it quite emotional myself. I was skimming through the exhibition catalogue of your thesis exhibition and noted that you used found images for this video. The video is quite seemless in the way that it's been layered, so the final result is very rich. Could you talk a bit about the process of putting this work together?

Deanna Bowen: I’m appropriating audio and video from both versions of the films Imitation of Life and Hallelujah!, as well as Reconstruction era photographs of US politicians from the Library of Congress, as well as found audio recording of my grandfather and original hand-processed 16mm footage shot by Christina Battle.


I’m using the video screen as a canvas and am approaching the full composition as though it were a collage or perhaps a paint surface. The video is digitally edited with a basic editing system, then imported into an animation software called After Effects. Additional text and images are brought in by scanning it into Photoshop then copy and pasting it onto a transparent layer, which I layer over the video footage. Each scene could be comprised of anywhere between two to 30 layers. It’s a lot like Photoshop but moving. The audio composition comes about through a collaborative process that includes me humming to Mahalia Jackson singing the spiritual "Soon I Will Be Done" (which closes the 1959 version of the film Imitation of Life).

I thought that was an interesting choice of classic film reference. The film's writer was Zora Neale Hurston's patron, plus that film was fraught with so many problematic racial issues. But beyond the title and the song, narratively, were there other ways in which you were connecting your video to that film?

DB: Yeah, the Zora Neale Hurston connection is wild. Fannie Hurst was also Langston Hughes' patron. Hurston initially applauded the book, but the black community and literary press slammed it. Hughes also wrote a pretty damning satire of the piece called "Limitations of Life" where he flips the race dynamic. I wanted to incorporate his dialogue in an earlier version of the project.

It's a bit tricky because the whole conversation about the politics surrounding the book (and films) is both a digression and entirely the point. That history (Hurston, Hurst, Hughes) is part of the work too, but from a different place. I am interested in how the book's narrative travels from its conception at the height of the "mammy craze" at the tail end of the Reconstruction era, to its adaptation to film, and then its sanitization in the film's remake.

Way back in the beginning of the project, I started from a place of knowing that Imitation of Life was one of my mother's favourite films along with another Reconstruction-era inspired film, Pinky. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, the relationship between Sarah Jane and Annie is very much like the relationship between my mother and I — that push/pull thing about expectations in life, youth versus age, domestic versus professional. These ideas took me to Toni Morrison's Beloved where she lays out the generational transmission of slave trauma between mother and daughter, community....

I cried for two weeks straight when I made the connections between all of these sources. It was devastating to see the crux of my estrangement from family laid out so clearly. So, in this sense, the film worked out to be a way for me to nail down the cycle of trauma that defines my disconnection from my mother. The daughter's anguished remorse is something I am familiar with. The film's history opens up a window for me to revise this narrative with my own autobiography.

Photoshop in motion is a nice descriptive, although I'm more interested in your process in perhaps a much less physically tactile way. When I was in the room watching your video on a large screen, I found it emotionally overwhelming. It really spoke to me and captured something. I think all artists, when we have been working and re-working a piece, especially when that piece means something very deep to us, there's a point at which we can look at it and get the shivers. When I think about animism and African sculpture, it's always discussed and expressed that creation is a way to form a language or a word for a feeling or a type of power that there is absolutely no language or word for — it becomes what one is attempting to explain, to communicate. That said, my impression was that you hit on something during the process of creating this work that must have been, not just technically satisfying, but an emotionally satisfying experience as well. It is a remarkable piece with a lot of life. I'd love for you to tell me a bit more about that side of its development.

DB: I've been making works about/for myself for a long time and am always a bit surprised when I've hit someone else's nerve. I think part of that comes from producing works that tend to go against the grain aesthetically, politically.

I'm not sure that I'd describe the creative process as satisfying. Certainly challenging, profound, rich. But I have to be honest, it was also phenomenally overwhelming. The project was an important breakthrough conceptually/technically/personally. I've never been one to do "easy" projects, and this one was no different. This piece cut to my core and in that process I was able to find new ways to allow myself to be seen.

I'm reluctant to go into what came up for me beyond this, partly because there was a very intense thing that happened in the process of creation that was/is intended for me, and partly because I haven't quite processed it all. I'm still deciphering what took place there. Beyond that, I can speak to how unaware I am about the work, and I mean that with all sincerity. There is a great deal that I haven't come to terms with regarding the creative process on a spiritual level. That's the beauty of the time that comes after production — the time to unpack.

Video Artist: Deanna Bowen, Preacherman (Stela) photograph

This piece was one component of your thesis show. What was the focus of your study?

DB: Oh wow, not a good idea to ask a barely decompressed Master's student what their thesis was about. I can't quite answer the question easily and/or briefly, but I'll try!

I had been making an experimental documentary about my family and my discovery of our slave history in Alabama. I had just found the plantation our family had been enslaved prior to landing in the Masters of Visual Studies (MVS) program at the University of Toronto (U of T). So, my thesis was directly related to an incredibly overwhelming need to process what I had experienced.

I studied with Professor Lahusen, who had a course focused on the intersections of public and personal testimony, the Holocaust, trauma theory, and its relevance to other massive traumas such as slavery, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Vietnam.... It was here that I began to look at literary methods for articulating trauma, which ultimately led to looking at Toni Morrison's Beloved as an example of a gothic (slave) trauma narrative. There's a lot of texts that talk about Beloved as a near perfect example of matrilineal transmission of slave trauma, and I borrow heavily from these ideas.

KMA: That's interesting when you speak of the psychological, especially within the context of Morrison's work. She is by far the premier African-American writer that delves into the psychological impression left on people post-slavery. Beloved, and also her book Song of Solomon (with her character with no belly button...that was deep!), Sula too, are spiritually some of the heaviest works of fiction out there, particularly when one stops to consider the reality of parallel universes, of layered existences of life. Trauma also seems to spark very intense spiritual awakening and growth, which brings me to the issue of signs and symbols. Morrison's work is layered with it: her characters — other worldly, coming back to haunt in order to find their loved ones.... Imitation of Life has them worked well throughout. What of the spiritual signifiers, bible references, your family's history?

DB: Morrison's a huge influence, as are Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. I looked to these writers for their structure-breaking strategies. I have never been able to make a work with a single narrative or a simple structure, in part because I don't view any story as being that simple. And, as you said, life is a layered experience.

The symbolism, bible references, and quotes from Morrison, Ellison, Baldwin, and Mahalia allow me to critique family and organized religion in a way that doesn't impact living family members. It's the challenge of my separation from family — being critical and still loving them, understanding their ways within a greater historical framework and then finding reason to reproach and defend them. The external references I chose point to those histories: Morrison's understanding of transmission of matrilineal slave trauma via the mother/daughter/grandmother triad, which mimics my childhood; Ellison's profound understanding of "blackness," identity and invisibility, which points to the cumulative wisdom I've gained about identity and voice in my travels; and, Baldwin's love/hate relationship with the black church — which, of course, provides me with the means to speak about my love/hate with the black church and my grandfather who was a preacher.

Beyond this, there are all kinds of symbolism happening that forms another layer of (secret) narrative: the horse-drawn carriage as death metaphor, horse as heroine, pointed biblical scripture that alludes to being marked/cursed, counting mechanisms....

I happened across a piece of writing by Louis F. Mirón and Jonathan Xavier Inda entitled “Race as a Kind of Speech Act." Mirón and Inda's compelling point is that there is no biological truth to "race." They build on Judith Butler's writings on gender performativity to argue that race is a social fiction that comes into being through discourse. This idea is another huge part of my thesis, at least conceptually, as it provides the best platform for me to challenge identity issues for myself and my work.

KMA: The fiction of race as you've noted, is truly on point. One thing that I remember well from your exhibition catalogue was a statement you made about your work being interepreted along issues of race rather than for its artistic merit. And I would concur. It is definitely a problem for, to borrow Adrian Piper's phrasing, "coloured women artists." I'm curious as to how, if at all, your theoretical approach to your thesis was challenged because of that.

DB: I'm probably no different than most when I say that my arts career has been marked by a process of constantly being read within a racial context — either by Europeans or by my own community who argue for representation. This has impacted my work and process in such a huge way. Finding scholarship that discussed the fiction of race gave me incredible artistic license and personal power and made me feel theoretically grounded.

The reality is that the fiction of race has been totally normalized. I would rather not have the discussion of race, but I recognize that my work is produced within this racialized environment. I'm going to have the have the conversation, and when I do, it's from a place of insisting that we could be talking about something else. It's frustrating, but is strangely a kind of progress that at least incrementally weakens the fiction. Perhaps with time it helps to know that discussions of race are not obligatory, that it is a choice to engage at all.

KMA: When you went into your program, did you originally have one set idea as to what type of work you wanted to do and what type of issues you wanted to explore and then later find that your final work morphed into something a bit different than you originally expected?

DB: It was a bit of both. I knew that I wanted to position myself a little better professionally when I came into the program. I wanted to try photography and I was interested in playing with whatever facilitated the piece. I knew I wanted all the works to be intergrated and clean stylistically. Video was a given, and I felt confident there, but everything else was chance.

Content wise, making the video started rather obsessively, with it comprised of different footage all together. And in hindsight, it seems that all of this material was the emotional cornerstone for getting me to the work I ultimately produced. Early plans for the video were much more elaborate, and maybe somewhere down the line I'll be able to get into larger scale, detailed productions, but I was wisely advised to keep this project simple. Having said that, I always tend to dream immense and then go through a process of whittling down to these spare engagements.

What's upcoming for you? I saw on your Web site that you'll be having an exhibition at WARC next year. What else is in the works for Deanna Bowen artistically?

DB: I am enjoying a lot of attention right now. I've just been invited to be part of a two-person show at Diaz Contemporary this summer/fall, so Gospel will get re-mounted in some way or another.

I'm researching a project that I'm calling the Vancouver Project. It's looking like it'll take up a Jeff Wall photo from 1988 entitled Eviction Struggle. I lived in one of the buildings in the photo, so it'll be a similar historical/personal exploration that's bound to go all over the place. So far, it's looking like a suite of about seven distinct but interdependent bodies of works in video, photography, sculpture and sound. And, I'm off to Alberta to continue work on a project that was intended to map the migration of gospel music to the Canadian prairies, so I'll be shooting a series of portraits of gospel singers over the summer.

Beyond that, with any luck I'll be teaching at U of T in the fall.

Please visit the artist's Web site at

ARTWORK: Reproduced with permission of the artist. From top: (installation view) Imitation of Life; (video excerpt) Imitation of Life; (photo) Preacherman (Stela).


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