Xaviera Simmons – Biography

29 11 2009

Biography – Xaviera Simmons

Joanna Gohmann

As an artist concerned with addressing historical, cultural beliefs and understandings in a contemporary context, critics continuously praise Xaviera Simmons for her fresh perspective on age-old issues regarding the formation of blackness. Simmons takes multiple approaches to subject matter, employing several media including: photography, video, performance, and installation. She often conducts deep historical research about her subject matters, obtaining a thorough understanding of the historic development of black identities, starting in Africa.[1] Although this contextual research may not appear in a literal fashion on the surface of her work, Simmons emphasizes that historiography “broadens [her] artistic vocabulary.”[2]

Certainly, Simmons’ oeuvre extends to issues beyond blackness. In many projects she questions the formation and erasures of history and community. Through several photograph-based works, Simmons attempts to confront documentary photographs, such as those taken by Walker Evans, exposing this medium’s fault in treating the Other. In projects such as “Bronx as Studio,” she also investigates individual and collective identities and their construction as opposed to their natural origins. Regardless of the problems she approaches through her art, Simmons always engages the past, working out from historical points in time and demonstrating their current relevance. Prior to Simmons’ 2004 graduation from Bard College, she and a group of Buddhist monks retraced the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from the United States to Africa. Surely this experience of embodiment reflects her commitment, both spiritually and physically, to understanding how beliefs and expectations are historically formed.

Born on May 1, 1974 and raised in Harlem and Queens, Xaviera Simmons continues to reside there today. International institutions in Warsaw, Poland, Derry, Ireland, Berlin, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary have featured her work, however, the majority of her career has been based in New York City. In New York, Simmons’ work has appeared, amongst other places, at Art in General, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Bronx Museum, Exit Art, Museum of Arts and Design, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Light Space, and The Jack Shainman Gallery. In 2005, Simmons participated in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, a year-long interdisciplinary, immersion experience with other visual artists and scholars from varying fields. The program facilitates ongoing discussion “that examines historical, social, and intellectual conditions of artistic practice.”[3] That same year, she was the Workspace Artist at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens. Here she participated in several open studios, slide talks, and workshops in which she discussed and exhibited her work. Simmons has been an artist in residence at The Center for Photography at Woodstock, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Light Work. Simmons also participated in several performances in which she DJs and experiments with sound.[4] She has also collaborated with fellow New York artist, Clifford Owens, on a performance entitled “Whipped Cream Piece, Lick Piece.”

Outside of New York, Xaviera Simmons has been featured in solo and group exhibitions. In 2007, the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum commissioned an installation for an entire gallery space. Titled “Xaviera Simmons: The Hustle Never stops in Lagos,” Simmons created a comfortable meeting space that anyone in the community could use. She blurs the boundaries between gallery visitor and artist, creating a space in which the viewer participates in making the piece. The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (CAMH) featured a Simmons’ installation titled “Perspectives 157: Xaviera Simmons”; this was a variation of a previously commissioned installation, for Art in General, in New York, “How to break your own heart,” consisting of a collage of vintage LP records. The MOCA, Cleveland featured one of her video pieces within the exhibition “Facing Race- Four Artists Speak Out.” In the summer of 2009, Simmons’ video piece, “Landscape: Beach (density),” was featured in the CAMH’s  “Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970” an exhibition which celebrated the black women’s participation in the video arts. In “Landscape: Beach (density),” Simmons uses a subtle sense of humor as she interrogates being ignored and overlooked while simultaneously making herself more exotic and bold. The video presents Simmons on a beach, applying a thick coat of black colored sun screen and placing a huge fro wig atop of her head; despite these bold gestures, the white woman sitting next to her does not notice Simmons’ behaviors. Simmons suggests that no matter how outrageous a black woman’s behaviors might be, the white public usually ignores the black woman.

Other venues which have hosted Simmons’ work include, amongst others: Real Art Ways in Connecticut, RFC Museum in Florida, Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College in Tennessee, and New Art Council. She will be part of the NASHER Museum’s, in North Carolina, “The Record” in 2010. On February 12, 2008 at the High Museum of Art awarded Xaviera Simmons with the David C. Driskell Prize for her “original contribution to the field of African American Art.”[5] Her career has just begun and already she has achieved great attention and success. Appearing in catalogues, internet blogs, news papers, art magazines, museums, YouTube, MySpace, FlickR and galleries, Xaviera Simmons has achieved a sizable fan base. Her reception has spread outside New York City, appearing in the North, the South, and internationally. By age 35, Simmons is certainly a strong presence in the art world.


[1] Mark Garcia, “Xaviera Simmons” in Frequency, Eds Thelma Golden, Christine Y. Kim ; [artists], Michael Paul Britto (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2005): 80.

[2] Garcia, 81.

[3] Whitney Museum, Independent Study Program. (Consulted on November 8, 2009).  Available at: http://www.whitney.org/www.information/whitney_isp.jsp.

[4] In her exhibition, “How to break your own heart,” Simmons held DJ jam sessions in the gallery space. She also did this with the Perspectives 157 installation and Electric Relaxation at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.  “Oscillation: (for a minute there, I lost myself),” was a performance piece held on December 18, 2008 in which Simmons used experimental sound, photography, video, movement, and text to engage the audience in an interactive experience.

[5] “High Names Xaviera Simmons as 2008 Recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize.” High Museum Press Release (Atlanta: February 12, 2008): Consulted on November 11, 2009. Available at : http://www.high.org/main.tfa?erube_fh=erblog.submit.PostDetail=true&erblog.blogid=31&erblog.BlogPostID=603.

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