Elizabeth M. Webb is an artist and filmmaker whose material practice is entwined with experimental research. These two aspects of her work are inlaid, as it is nearly impossible to speak about one without the other. Originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, Elizabeth’s family history is embedded in her work, in particular its oscillating histories of racial passing throughout the United States. The artist often considers her own experience, and that of her family’s, as a way of examining broader social structures, and how those structures are at odds with lived realities. Her research process acknowledges these limits, her questions leading her through and around theoretical texts into the homes of estranged family, local churches, and former family plantations.
Working in multiple media including photography, printmaking, sculpture, and film, Elizabeth’s work thinks deeply about the material contexts from which her works emerge, as well as their social implications. This results in work that places traditional media in direct contact with materials like soil, river water, and found objects. I first met Elizabeth when we attended the Whitney ISP in 2016, and we have remained in dialogue since then. In addition to sharing that experience, we also share an interest in the incompatibility of socio-political structures and organic life, as well as the politics around legibility and visibility. In 2018, Heather Canlas Rigg and I presented Elizabeth’s work at our project space at the time, ma ma, which nurtured our ongoing discussions. The following conversation begins with the work that Elizabeth was making around 2016, including her first film, For Paradise, which we use as a starting point for unpacking the myriad of overlaid inquiries that her works contain. Discussing a number of projects along the way, this interview concludes with the work she made for her solo exhibition A Bearing Tree is a Witness at Gallery 44 in Toronto, curated by Lillian O'Brien Davis.
I am interested in celluloid film as a direct descendent of plant cellulose: though implicated in the scaffolding of colonialism, celluloid film contains within its chemical makeup the same liberatory possibilities that my work seeks from plant life. By repurposing film in the service of these possibilities, my practice is working towards a decolonial visuality–one that defies boundary lines, finds care in root networks, and attends to embodied cartographies.
Elizabeth, it is really nice to be speaking with you this way, we have worked together in the past but this is the first time we are having the opportunity to transcribe one of our conversations. To start, could you say a word about the broader questions embedded in your practice?
Yes! It’s lovely as always to be in conversation with you. My practice exists at the nexus of multiple intersections. I am a Black woman with white presenting privilege; I contain blood memory of the Deep South and migrations North; I look to my ancestors as a portal to access a collective future. My work is really invested in the ways we position ourselves in relation to others, the ways we are positioned by others, and how these different positions are made visible (or invisible). I am drawn to Stuart Hall’s analysis of how we might conceive of identity in terms of “routes” rather than “roots.” Where “roots” statically connect identity to origin, “routes” envision identity as the continuous process of coming to be. My own family history of migration, racial passing, and existing on both sides of the “color line” serves as an entry point in my work for exploring larger, systemic constructs and the renegotiation of their borders.
Your film For Paradise (2016) really thinks about this idea of roots and routes; the story braids three narratives together—that of your great- grandmother, the Alabama landscape, and your tracing of a history of racial passing in your own family. Can you speak to how these elements come together in the film?
For Paradise began as a series of simultaneous inquiries. At that time, I was grappling with the legacies of erasure that were happening in my family as a result of my father’s decision to pass as white and raise us without knowledge of our Black ancestry. I was doing a lot of work to find and connect with many of the family members we were not in contact with. While reconnecting with my great aunt Jane, she told me the story of her mother, a Black woman known for her beauty but who never allowed her picture to be taken–and her name was Paradise. At first, I was really invested in helping Jane find a photograph of her mom–she spent her life trying to know her in this way (Paradise died shortly after Jane’s birth). But when I wasn’t able to find a photograph, and when multiple people kept telling this same story about how she never let her picture be taken, I started thinking about the implications of that. I started thinking about her denial of photographic representation as an act of power–that perhaps Paradise was refusing to be subsumed into an archive that couldn’t hold her in all her complexity as a Black woman in the rural South. And so in the absence of an image of her, I turned to the landscape that witnessed her life. I’m indebted to the work of Saidiya Hartman and her approaches to considering the landscape as a witness to histories that might exist outside the Archive–her work has been influential to the way I frame my practice. As I started learning more about the history of the land and its flora and fauna, I learned about kudzu. I grew up seeing it along roadways in Virginia–it has a tendency to overtake the landscape, forming lush, green blankets of leaves that envelop trees and buildings alike. These blankets become so thick and dense that the kudzu kills everything it covers. It was introduced to Eastern Alabama at the end of the 19th century as a potential solution to the problem of soil erosion, which had happened as a result of the plantation economy and over-farming cotton. The erosion had gotten so bad in this area that the rivers turned red from runoff and some people said Alabama was bleeding to death–and of course it was, in multiple ways. I was struck by how the histories of the landscape seemed to parallel and intersect with social histories in a really direct and yet tangled way. So kudzu became a sort of multivalent metaphor in the film–for whiteness, for the effects of secrecy…it never really settles into a singular meaning, but weaves through the film as a complicating structure. With For Paradise, I knew I was making a film, but I didn’t set out with a distinct narrative in mind. A lot of the film was really formed in the editing process. But, it also followed a very real experience in my life of building and rebuilding relationships, especially with Black members of my family in Alabama. I wanted to create a conversation of sorts between my father and his first cousins–neither of whom really knew the other existed. So I filmed myself talking with my father, and then showed the footage of that conversation to his cousins in Alabama and filmed their reactions, and showed that footage to my father and filmed his reaction, etc. These narratives of family, landscape, and the search for Paradise move in a kind of porous way throughout the film.
It is difficult to speak about your work without mention of your research process, which is so deep, and combines multiple approaches: academic, familial, oral histories, and more. Could you speak to your approach with For Paradise?
My practice involves a lot of gathering. I will often find something that piques my interest, like the plant kudzu, and then spiral down a research hole following different threads until I can hardly remember the original thing that brought me there. But along the way, I find more and more things that pique my interest, so I end up with a kind of constellation of topics and facts and narratives that may seem disparate but are connected to each other in some way. I try to always pay attention to the absences, too, and what they tell us. With For Paradise, there is a lot that is left unsaid and very little that comes to a clean resolution. These gaps are intentional. At the end of the film, I say “I gather us around the shape of what was lost, hoping to measure it.” I think my way of researching, and maybe my practice in general, is about gathering around negative space.
That is an important observation. There is such a deep tendency in academia, and even a lot of curatorial work, to connect what we see into a linear narrative, creating bridges over the unknown or ignoring them altogether. This is rooted in the colonial mindset that Western art history emerged from. The uneasy relationship between visibility and legibility weaves in and out of your work, certainly with the topic of racial passing, but also in relation to photography. I think the first time I encountered this was with the stereographic photographs you made in Alabama, which allowed you to depict the same subject from two slightly different perspectives simultaneously.
Untitled, Stereo Views (Opelika, AL, Charlottesville, VA, Brooklyn, NY) were actually taken at different locations that are points in my family’s migration story, including Alabama. I became really fascinated with stereographic images, in part because Paradise was born in the height of their popularity in the US. A stereograph, as you mentioned, is made up of two different images taken from slightly different angles at the exact same time. When placed in a stereo viewer, our eyes combine the images and create a single image that we perceive as three dimensional. Stereograph cards were part of a Western colonial project of vision and mastery. They were often sold as sets that would allow the viewer to perceive a culture from anywhere in the world in three dimensions, “from the comfort of a living room.” For that particular project, it was important to me to display the stereographs without the viewing apparatus. I wanted to invite the viewer to sit with the images and perhaps attempt to reconcile their apparent doubleness and the slight differences between the two perspectives. I was thinking about this doubleness in relation to W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness. But I also felt that displaying the photographs without their viewing apparatus would draw attention to the photographs as images, and the act of sight as a subjective and constructed experience.
Connecting land surveying and property creation to systems of white supremacy, A Bearing Tree is a Witness was really about the ways that plant life might provide liberatory models for how our bodies might also subvert these systems of power and control.
You revisited this theme again in your exhibition at Gallery 44 with the inclusion of a stereoscope viewer. How have your ideas around these themes evolved since the 2017 photographs? What did it mean to you to exhibit the viewer in an exhibition?
I continue to be fascinated with stereographs! But I’m still constantly thinking about how this colonial project of vision and mastery can be undermined as well. I included a stereoscope in A Bearing Tree is a Witness as part of the piece Stereo Pair (Double Acorn) (2022). But, in lieu of a stereo card at the end of the stereoscope, I placed a platinum-plated bronze cast of a double acorn. The piece is meant to be a bit funny–obviously it is nonsensical to attempt to view an already three dimensional object through a stereoscope. The soil print maps in the exhibition Lee County Stereo Views (Index 1-4) (2022) are also references to stereography. They are actually indexes of aerial photographs of Lee County, Alabama, taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1950. The images are taken in stereo pairs, but the index is meant to serve as a geographic finding aid so the images in the prints are all layered on top of each other. However, they are not stereographic in an West/East (Left/Right) orientation as might be expected, but rather in a North/South orientation. This is because the wind patterns wouldn’t allow for a crisp photograph if the plane flew East/West, so the plane had to fly North/South. So, to view the images stereographically, one would have to rotate the images ninety degrees. I was charmed by the idea that here, nature was the one undermining the human desire to see/know through photography.
Me too, it is so poetic! In your new work included in your solo exhibition A Bearing Tree is a Witness at Gallery 44, concepts of mapping, measuring, and surveying are central. Can you describe the research behind this project, and how you conceptualized these works?
About ten years ago I was doing research in the basement of the Lee County Courthouse in Opelika, Alabama. I was particularly interested in looking at the land records associated with the tracts of land that once held a plantation owned by some of my ancestors. (For context, one set of my great-great-great grandparents were white plantation owners; their son, a doctor, had five sons with a Black woman named Janie Traywick. One of those sons, Joseph, is my great-grandfather; he married Paradise. Dr. Webb made special provisions in his will to pass down his land to these five “illegitimate” sons. Upon his death, Dr. Webb’s sister tried to contest the legitimacy of the sons as heirs because of their race. The case went to court and the five sons eventually won. The land is no longer in our family, but Paradise’s home sits on one of those tracts of land, and her home was a kind of pilgrimage place for different family members who came back to Alabama.) While in the courthouse, I stumbled across the field notes from the original 1834 U.S. Government land surveys of that land. Before the days of GPS, field notes used trees as reference points to make visible an imaginary grid and create property boundaries. They were also used in land valuation, because the type of growth present on a particular parcel could help determine whether it would be good farmland. This act of turning landscape into property imposes a colonial hegemonic framework on the land that cannot be separated from the social–1834 is one of the heights of forced displacement of indigenous populations (primarily Maskoke) in that area, and the ensuing European settlement was supported by a plantation economy that relied on enslaved laborers. I became really interested in all these power dynamics at play and the role of the plants listed in the field notes. I started researching land surveying more broadly as well, including many of the instruments used for surveying and measurement. In land surveying language, a “bearing tree” is a “witness” to a survey corner. Naturally, this resonated with me deeply, and related to the way that I had approached For Paradise and other works. I also started thinking about the multitude of ways that plant life could not only witness but actually transgress or undermine these human-imposed boundaries. After land is cleared for farming (sometimes containing these trees/reference points), the given plot points no longer function, and the grid is erased in a certain sense. A new tree of the same species might grow several feet from a survey corner, skewing the entire grid. Roots network below ground and form a tangled, interdependent web of relation across borders. And come autumn, leaves from a tree along the boundary line will fall to the other side. I started to connect my family’s histories of racial passing/passing-as-white/“crossing over” to these border transgressions and a countervisuality that functions in relation to in/visible systems of power and control. Aunt Sarah “crossed over” at work to feed her family. Ike passed as white to buy a brownstone in a white neighborhood, then brought in the rest of his family who had darker complexions. Jane spoke of dark-skinned friends who, in segregated D.C., learned to speak a few words of a foreign language to get into a whites-only movie theater. I also learned a great deal about the ways that plants are categorized and named, stemming from an Enlightenment-era desire to order.
Also a museological desire at that time, that continues in many Western institutions today. It is a gesture of power.
Definitely. I learned that oak trees are often particularly difficult to identify because there is such vast phenotypic variation and species variation. So I started thinking about the oak tree (and the acorn as its seed) in relation to these larger structures of power and control. Connecting land surveying and property creation to systems of white supremacy, A Bearing Tree is a Witness was really about the ways that plant life might provide liberatory models for how our bodies might also subvert these systems of power and control.
Something really important about your work is your approach to materiality. The media you use always seems to have a layered relationship to the narratives and inquiries you are addressing. Some examples that come to mind are your soil prints and your newer sculptures plated in platinum.
My intention is always to mirror the concepts of a work in the viewer’s experience of the work. For me, the material has a critical role in meaning making. The soil prints were made from pigment I harvested from the boundary line of my family’s former plantation land. Platinum is the material used for the original metre standard, which is a physical metal bar upon which nearly every other measurement was once based. In Sighting Device (2022) and Stereo Pair (Double Acorn) (2022), I wanted to use platinum as a nod to this history and to question the idea of a “standard.”
Further to this, you have recently taken more experimental approaches to film, extending your artistic media into the material conditions of her spaces of inquiry. In Proximity Study (Sight Lines) (2021) for example, you physically dragged the 16mm film through the East River where your grandfather worked as a longshoreman. Can you speak about how this material process was part of the conceptual framework?
I actually used a similar material process in For Paradise. In that film, I buried the 16mm film in the soil such that the microbes ate parts of the emulsion and destroyed parts of the image. So in For Paradise, the footage we see at the beginning of the film is actually the same footage we see at the end of the film, except the footage at the end is post-burial. I projected it onto my body and filmed that, so skin can be seen through the erased parts. I was interested in the idea that where the image is most destroyed is actually where you can most clearly see the body—I was thinking about this in relation to the story of Paradise and her refusal of the image.
When I first conceptualized Proximity Study (Sight Lines), I knew I wanted to film the Brooklyn docks where my grandfather (whom I never met) worked for much of his life. He migrated north from Alabama during the Great Migration and eventually settled in Brooklyn. In 2020 I moved down the block from the apartment in Brooklyn where he lived for many years. Retracing his walking paths throughout Bed-Stuy, I would think about how we walk/ed upon leaves shed from the same tree, many years apart and from radically different life experiences. I thought of these acts as “Proximity Studies”—as ways to measure our closeness despite temporal distance. Finding information about what his time on the docks was like proved to be quite difficult (and access to the physical docks was limited because they are still operational), so I found myself looking at his place of work from the closest accessible point. From Governors Island I was able to look directly at his place of work; many years ago, he would have returned my gaze from the other side. I filmed the Red Hook docks on 16mm film from my perspective on Governors Island, and rowed in the Buttermilk Channel between these two locations. (Shoutout to the artist Marie Lorenz whose Tide and Current Taxi project is the reason I was able to safely do this process–the Buttermilk Channel is an active shipping channel and large boats abound!) The physical film print trailed behind our rowboat, tracing our route, recording our sight lines, and reaching to bridge the distance across the channel. Yet, the longer we rowed, the more the water erased the image. It felt like the more I tried to learn about my grandfather, the less I actually knew and the more questions I had. In some ways this piece is a collaboration with the space between us–the waterway–which is also a symbol of movement and migration.
Boundary Exercise (On Perambulation) (2022), involved a similar gesture, but rather than water you immersed the film in soil.
Just as lens-based land surveying instruments help to measure space, parcel land into property, and create visual registers of meaning, film serves as a measure of time; each frame is a unit, much like the 40 acre parcels that make up 36 sections that compose a township in land surveying. Film, then, becomes another kind of map. Boundary Exercise (On Perambulation) (2022) utilizes 264 ft–7 minutes and 20 seconds–of 16mm film, which is the physical distance of the perimeter of a square chain (a surveying measurement). Select distances of the film were buried along the boundary lines of my family’s former plantation land; once again, microbes ate away at the emulsion, creating a partial image. Historically, many landowners engaged in a yearly practice of perambulation–or walking the perimeters of their property with family members in order to reinscribe these boundaries and to teach younger generations where property lines began and ended. I buried the film along the boundary line in order to invite a reciprocal and collaborative relationship with the material itself; here, too, the land contests the existence of the boundary. As the 264 ft film loops on a projector in the gallery over the duration of the exhibition, the image erodes further. I am interested in celluloid film as a direct descendent of plant cellulose: though implicated in the scaffolding of colonialism, celluloid film contains within its chemical makeup the same liberatory possibilities that my work seeks from plant life. By repurposing film in the service of these possibilities, my practice is working towards a decolonial visuality–one that defies boundary lines, finds care in root networks, and attends to embodied cartographies.
I would love to speak about your porcelain works. You did three series—Cameo Ground (Children of Paradise) (2018), For the Mud Holds What History Refuses (Providence II) (2019), and In case of some designing persons (2022). I remember when you first started experimenting with porcelain to make these works, many told you it wasn’t possible! Why was it so important to you to work in this material, in this way?
Yes! I did get a lot of questioning looks from some of the more traditional ceramics artists along the way, but I’m deeply indebted to the artists who helped me hone the process, including Jeff Forster at the Glassell Studio School in Houston. This inquiry began as an idea that I just couldn’t get out of my head–I wanted to create porcelain documents. As I did test after test, I would adapt to what the material was telling me. It was a years-long process of adjustments and variables until I finally got the results I wanted. Even now it is an extremely fickle process, though, and I think that’s part of the work. Like with burying the film, I only have control over the process to a certain extent. The kiln makes a lot of artistic decisions for me. But one of the reasons I was so hooked on using porcelain in the first series, Cameo Ground (Children of Paradise) (2018) was because of its connotations as a “precious” material that is often passed down among generations. It’s also known for its whiteness and its fragility, though molecularly it is actually very strong (which is why it can get so thin). I also was intrigued by its history as a material that was “copied” by Europeans in an attempt to approximate (often unsuccessfully) the East Asian original. There are a lot of debates about what constitutes authentic porcelain. For Cameo Ground (Children of Paradise), I was really drawn to the way the material process caused the text to move in and out of legibility, with limited control by me. That piece includes thirteen paper-thin porcelain panels that include text from an interview that I did with my great-aunt Jane, the youngest child of Paradise. Jane talks about who among her twelve siblings could pass as white, and sort of categorizes everyone in relation to their skin tone–this person was two shades darker than this person, who was half a shade lighter than this person, etc. The text is the exact same across the thirteen panels, but different parts of the text are legible across different panels. I was thinking about the way the text moves in and out of legibility in relation to the way the passing subject moves in and out of social legibility–that a person might be “read” in one way in certain settings, and in another way in other settings. I also wanted the viewer to have to engage in the practice of reading across difference in order to be able to access the entire text. The next time I used porcelain was in For the Mud Holds What History Refuses (Providence II) (2019), a project that examines the complex social and natural histories of Providence Canyon in Western Georgia. Known as one of Georgia’s “Seven Natural Wonders,” Providence Canyon formed in under one hundred years as a result of soil erosion from over-farming cotton, which is like the blink of an eye in geological terms. In the early 1900s as part of an attempt to bring tourism to the South, the very human history of the landscape was obscured in favor of the narrative of a God-given natural wonder. But, Thomas Jefferson Flanagan, an African American poet and local to the Providence Canyon area, had a much more ambivalent view of the place and expresses it in his 1940 epic poem The Canyons at Providence (The Lay of The Clay Minstrel). Providence Canyon is visually very striking because of the juxtaposition between the deep red clay and bright white deposits of kaolin, which is one of the main components of porcelain. So, I created sheets of porcelain containing the text of Flanagan’s poem, and displayed them on a light box covered in red soil I harvested from my family’s former plantation land. Because legibility was less of a conceptual element in this work, I made the porcelain pages in a slightly different way which did not produce cracks and fissures in the same way as the process I used for Cameo Ground. In In case of some designing persons (2022), I used the same process as in Cameo Ground, but on a larger scale. In this case, I leaned on the topographic qualities that the process creates. The river-like gaps and fissures that occur when the cotton paper burns away during the firing process are reminiscent of maps. In case of some designing persons uses text from interviews with different family members describing experiences negotiating the “color line,” along with the field notes from the original land surveys of the plantation land, overlaid onto the gridded plat maps of the land parcels that were passed down from my great-great grandfather to my great grandfather. The porcelain warps and twists during the firing process, skewing the grid and forming a new map.
Works like your platinum-plated sculptures of your hands, and the inclusion of a surveying chain in your recent exhibition in Toronto are newer developments in your practice. In some ways they felt like the final touches to this body of work. Could you speak about these made, and found sculptures?
Let’s not call it the final touch because I’m currently working on a feature film that builds off the work and ideas in A Bearing Tree is a Witness! But yes, these elements do feel like slightly different developments in my practice. Certainly materially, working with platinum-plated bronze was new for me, but the inclusion of my hands or other parts of my body in my work has been a constant. By casting my hands for Sighting Device (2022), I wanted to emphasize the arbitrariness of what we consider to be standard measurement; the hands create a “frame” symbol to indicate a subjective perspective. The surveying chain is one of many antique surveying instruments I collected during the course of researching for this project. Another one, the pantograph–a tool for duplicating maps at different scales–appears in the film Boundary Exercise (On Perambulation). I was particularly interested in the lens-based instruments because of the systems of visuality that they impose on the landscape, but I was also always thinking about these more physical surveying tools in relation to the body, and perhaps especially my own body. The surveying chain, which is the base measurement unit for surveying, would physically be stretched, link by link, along a parcel of land by a surveyor. In some ways I think of that act like drawing, similar to the practice of perambulation. But then there’s this other, heavier connotation of the chain in relation to the landscape of the South and human bondage. I hadn’t always planned on including the chain in the exhibition, but when I stretched it around the room where the film was playing and it fit the dimensions exactly, it felt like it was asking to stay there. I think of the trajectory of my work kind of like an outward spiral that always curls back in on itself. I constantly seem to return to this practice of attempting to measure the intangible. How do we measure loss and absence? How do we measure closeness and connection?