“There would be no hesitation should I be asked to describe myself today. I am a Black woman. A woman yes, but a Black woman first and last. Black womanhood has been at the root of my entire existence since birth.” — Solange Knowles Ferguson
“Come and get close. It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to get a little gritty, and it might be a little intense. But it’s a conversation we need to have.”
Just over a year since Solange Knowles Ferguson released her critically acclaimed album A Seat at the Table addressing themes of black identity and black womanhood, the singer and artist has collaborated with London’s Tate Modern Museum in response to their exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The exhibition celebrates the powerful and provoking artworks of the Black Arts Movement beginning in the 1960s and includes artists such as Benny Andrews and Barkley L. Hendricks. In her commission, Solange responds to an undated photograph of artist and storyteller Betye Saar—a depiction not unlike the recognisable portrait of Solange on her album cover. In this portrait, Solange faces the camera, asking the viewer to “come and get close. It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to get a little gritty, and it might be a little intense. But it’s a conversation we need to have.”
Her response for the Tate Modern is an interactive digital dossier titled Seventy States created in collaboration with Spanish photographer Carlota Guerrero and director Alan Ferguson. Seventy States is an unembellished linear journey through manifesto, poetry, lyrics and video including previously unseen performance pieces from the music videos ‘Cranes in the Sky’ and ‘Please Don’t Touch My Hair’. It concludes with a new, original score We Sleep in Our Clothes, overlaying an installation by Ricardo Basbaum. In this visual manifestation of A Seat at the Table, Solange, explores languages that resonate with her: movement, repetition, symmetry, landscape and scenography. “When I’m writing a song, I also film myself dancing around to it in the studio. It’s really a practice in how I see myself and how I want the world to see me. Through this practice of self-study and watching these Photo Booth videos, I started to feel really good about what I was communicating with my body and movement”, says Solange in conversation with her sister, Beyoncé.
The featured video clips were taken on a road trip from New Orleans to New Mexico—a trip Solange completed twice with husband and director Alan Ferguson. The entrancing clips see Solange interact with the environment—depicted either at one or in stark contrast to the landscape. Sometimes she is so still that only a breeze will betray the illusion of a photograph. Their deceptive ease reflects the cool and controlled, yet loaded lyrics of her album. The videos, she says, are about working through her seventy states of being: “I mourned. I grieved. I raged. I felt fear and triumph while working through some of the trauma I set out to heal from. The state I so greatly wanted to experience, but that never arrived was optimism.”
Landscapes and place play out in Solange’s lyrics, melodies and beats. Embracing the philosophy that work encompasses the space it is made in, she wrote the lyrics for A Seat at the Table in New Iberia, Louisiana, where her grandparents once lived. Speaking on America’s National Public Radio, Solange described how she wanted to reclaim that space. “I wanted to be able to go back as a descendant of my grandparents and stake my claim and create work that honoured them—they built their home there, their family there. They were really grounded there. And there was a series of really, really awful events, where essentially, in the middle of the night, they got pushed out of town.” With this, Solange writes as a way to connect to her lineage and her roots and to speak for a collection of voices.
Like A Seat at the Table, which includes powerful spoken interludes, the Seventy States digital dossier is a slow journey that is best experienced in full. The interaction is a subtle play on a map, with simple lines guiding the viewer onto the next clip and down the page. It is a gentle interaction with layered beats and words that appear to have been taken directly from a laptop but have been scattered, flipped and shaped. Solange’s distinct voice creates a controlled groove while black women move and dance to what are now internationally recognisable beats. The pertinence of the lyrics and the position of the viewer/listener are reframed from the album for this collaboration, while they accompany a salient and timely exhibition.