Xaviera Simmons: Crisis Makes a Book Club

The art exhibition of Xaviera Simmons displayed at the Queens Museum starkly exemplifies the ongoing movement of progressivism surging through the world of contemporary art. From the time frame ranging from Renaissance to the post World War II period, racial and ethnic representation in art was limited to a greater extent, with European artists being the predominating forces that restricted artistic ideas to that of a white European perspective. Nevertheless, Simmons’ work which primarily consists of paintings, photography, sculptures, and most remarkably a monolithic structure with a hand-painted text written by Simmons herself. Presented here are three overpowering works whose socio-political themes represent one of the many contemporary viewpoints of artists that significantly deviate from that of European artists of earlier generations.

Paper Mache

The three bodily sculptures that stand aligned in a straight line are located in the first room of the exhibition. According to the exhibit label at the museum, these figures are Simmons’ attempt to replicate European prehistoric figures such as John Baldessari’s “The Giacometti Variations”.

The most peculiar feature of these figures, separating them or even making them distinctive from their European counterparts like Greek sculptures of Olympian pantheon is that Simmons deprives each figure from gender attributions. For instance, as one can notice, the figures are in similar rounded shape, lack facial features and also have bangles in their hands, collectively suggesting that the central theme resonates to that of human fertility. To a certain extent, the figures also resemble Venus figurines found across Europe that date back to the paleolithic age.

Unlike traditional sculptures found across European cultures where the stone is a key material, the texture of Simmons’ figure indicates that the surface was composed of paper and clay as a binding component. Use of clay providing softness to the texture upon touch also hints at an emphasis on the theme of mankind’s relation with earthly resources.

Crisis Makes a Book Club

This gigantic monolith stands in the middle of the area surrounded with Simmons’ works on flora and fauna. As mentioned previously, the structure is in the form of black walls on which the artist has painted text in white color with her hands. The text continues on all three walls of the structure whereas on one side is a gateway to an interior area portraying photography through slides on different screens attached on both all three sides of the wall. Each screen stimulates an echoing audio associated with the image shown when you pass through each screen. The warmer temperature inside this area also contrasted the external room temperature.

Nevertheless, the text was the most powerful piece one can encounter while spectating the rest of Simmons’ work and those of other artists as well. The text initiates through the perspective of a modern-day white individual, who maintains that it is an obligation for modern-day white Americans to undo or repair the wrongdoings committed by their descendents, starting with exploitation of resources of indegenous people. Simmons places a heavy emphasis on this idea as it gets repeated several times throughout the text. In an attempt to show how minorities and immigrant communities are often unaccounted for in today’s progressive socio political movements, the perspective asserts that “white feminitst men queer white people white women in the arts white academics and other creative professionals who descend from the construction of whiteness are multicultural substitutes for this empire.” The term empire here is exclusively used to refer to the United States according to the plaque posted at the entrance of Simmons’ exhibition. Simmons also specifies white European communities such as British, Scottish, French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, and Russian nationalities as people who collectively constitute America’s white community. The nationalities are also repeated on multiple occasions and therefore emphasized.

On the second wall, which is generally a side of the rectangular structure, Simmons quotes James Baldwin’s text which continues through the third wall. Baldwin’s text focuses on the disregard those in power exerted about the welfare of Black Americans, which according to Baldwin’s text was done intentionally by white political power to destroy and even diminish black communities.

In the other half of the third wall, the perspective of the white individual, whose gender is undisclosed and presumably presented as neutral, continues and asserts that the very foundation of America has come at the cost of exterminating indegenous peoples and usage of black slave labor to build the country’s infrastructure. The text ends with Simmons identifying “gentrification” as another form of colonial-era oppression that still affects the black communities.


The final part of the exhibition included a wide range of photographs of flowers and other plants taken in either a closeup or a portrait mode. However, the attached image which supposedly is of a dandelion galvanized me. Although it appears as a subtle image of a flower held by someone, it can be associated with a psychological methodology called “Rorschach Test,” which psychologists often use to assess perception of an individual. Such a relation can be established as when the image is seen from afar, it appears as a figure (formed by the flower’s shadow on left), is presumably holding the flower or leaning towards it.