Leila Weefur Renders Black Experience Dreamlike in ‘Between Beauty & Horror’

Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Leila Weefur’s Between Beauty & Horror started as a dream.

The two-channel video installation, projected large-scale on opposite walls of Oakland’s Aggregate Space Gallery, runs just over 17 minutes in length. The space between is divided diagonally by a 8-foot tall and 30-foot-long wall punctuated by two windows of one-way tempered glass. Everything in the darkened gallery is painted black. The only light comes from the projections themselves, which are also, often, mostly black.

Balanced against that darkness is a careful attention to sensorial details. Booming ominously out of surround-sound speakers is the video's score, a collaboration between Oakland-based Weefur and KYN (electronic music duo Yari Bundy and Josh Casey). And the video itself covers the tactile and taste bases with a variety of fabric textures (lace, thick cotton, knit balaclavas) and dripping fruit juice (always blackberries).

Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.'
Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Because it all started as a dream, the narrative structure of Between Beauty & Horror operates on dream logic. A voiceover describes a memory of a group of five friends standing in a circle, but later, the same voice says they’re sitting, apparently without contradiction. The friends are laughing, but then they’re not. They point finger guns at one another, and because it’s a dream, one friend’s finger turns into an actual gun.

Each step of the narration begins with “All I can remember,” as “all” becomes more and more, morphing from happy memory into nightmare. Interspersed among the dream scenes are moments that shift fluidly between violence, playfulness, tenderness, and of course, beauty and horror.

Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.'
Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.' (Courtesy of the artist)

“This whole piece is about the ways black folks often have blackness imposed on them in this very specific way,” Weefur says. “And oftentimes they have to assimilate into a kind of blackness in order to be in community with each other.”

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“Isn’t that as harmful,” she asks, “to expect everyone to gather around this ideology of blackness?”

Between Beauty & Horror poses many such questions about the black experience. It offers up no easy answers. And that feeling of unease is heightened by the video’s score, which Bundy describes as “scary comforting.” Dreamy voiceover blends with electronic mixes, cello notes, and a capella versions of songs Weefur brought to KYN as sound elements she deemed necessary to the project.

One is Dru Hill’s 1999 song “Beauty,” which Weefur grew up listening to. “It’s a very black song,” she says. “I wanted to use a song that was a love song, but it’s kind of eulogizing what I knew to be blackness. I wanted it to feel weird and creepy and uncomfortable to be hearing this man sing this song to you.”

Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.'
Still from 'Between Beauty & Horror.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Further (productive) discomfort comes from the physical arrangement of the gallery, with the opposite projections making it impossible to observe both halves of the video’s diptych at the same time. Positioning oneself in the space is a decision Weefur wanted to force her viewers into, implicating their own bodies in the action playing out in the videos above. And then there’s the feeling that you too are being watched. The windows of one-way glass are reminiscent of interrogation rooms, and facilitate, as Weefur says “bodies watching bodies watching bodies.”

The scale and slickness of Weefur’s installation is due in part to the Creative Work Fund grant she and Aggregate Space received last year–the $32,800 award helped them pay for collaborators (a film crew that includes cinematography by Chani Bockwinkel), production studio rentals and materials. But it’s not uncommon for Aggregate Space, even prior to its recent spate of national grant announcements, to put on museum-quality shows.

Leila Weefur.
Leila Weefur. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sadly, just prior to Weefur’s Feb. 15 opening, the nonprofit gallery announced that come Aug. 1, Aggregate Space will need to move to a new space; they’ve been unable to secure an affordable long-term lease on the warehouse space they've occupied on West Grand Avenue since opening in 2011.

The gallery that supports artists so they can be free to create noncommercial work now finds itself in the position of being unable to afford its own commercial space. It’s an uncomfortable position—much like those inhabited in and created by Between Beauty & Horror—that Aggregate Space hopes might somehow, some way, yield exciting, sustainable and more collaborative outcomes.

'Between Beauty and Horror' is on view at Aggregate Space Gallery (801 W. Grand Ave, Oakland) through March 23. Upcoming events First Friday event on March 1, 5–8pm; an artist talk at The Lab in San Francisco at 6pm, March 8; and an artist talk at the gallery at 11am, March 9. Details here.

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