Leila Weefur is a multimedia artist, writer, and curator based in the Bay Area. Across video, still photography, and artist books, they craft lush metaphors that illuminate blackness as an existential state, and that speak to those whose endurance is daily tested by the world’s judgement, rejection, and insults. Installed at Oakland’s Aggregate Space Gallery earlier this year, Weefur’s Between Beauty & Horror plumbed the cultural messaging that shapes black identity and examined how that messaging is internalized and eventually turned outward.

Of late, Weefur’s research and creative practice has centered the blackberry as a symbol of black existence. The earlier combined video and print installation Blackberry Pastorale: Symphony No. 1 (2017) examined the black femme body as it is interpreted based on signs and symbols within a racially coded cultural context. For Between Beauty & Horror, Weefur situated blackberries as symbols of the toxic stereotypes that shape perceptions of blackness and are absorbed subconsciously. Writer Elena Gross notes in “The Blackberry Tests,”1 included in the exhibition catalog, that blackberries are an invasive species. The plant will survive in whatever environment—hostile or friendly—it establishes roots. For its deep color and sweet contents, the blackberry is desired, but for its destructive potential, it is rejected. Writing in a complementary essay, “The Line Between,” Weefur meditates on how blackness is lived generationally. Where their grandmother, a “pleated skirt-clad little southern self-loathing black girl”2 allowed blackness as an abject state to take root, Weefur refuses to do the same. “Though she still breathes,” Weefur writes of their grandmother, “the carbon dioxide she expels, the tiny droplets of soured breath that collect in condensation, fills a Black space in which I will never, ever locate myself.”3 Between Beauty & Horror presented a mighty internal struggle for the soul. It is from that fight for identity—what is accepted and what is rejected—that this installation drew its raw power.

The installation was presented as a diptych, although the films were not displayed side by side. Instead, the projections were screened on walls at either end of the gallery’s long center space. A temporary wall with square apertures cut out of it subdivided the space, which made it difficult to watch the projections simultaneously. Although the films comprise much of the same content, each includes scenes that the other does not. When unfamiliar images or sequences appeared in either projection, it was intrusive, as though an unwanted memory had returned. Momentary glimpses in one projection of a length of rope and, later, a man’s eyes wide with fear implicated the legacy of anti-black violence as both historical and contemporary context for the project overall.

Weefur choreographed the split viewing experience to capture the duality they describe as “an intrinsic part of the Black experience.”4 After watching both projections from beginning to end, I stood at a point in the darkened gallery that I hoped would allow a clear sight line to the opposing walls, but I was thwarted. I could hear, but not see, what was happening on each screen. As my head swiveled right to left and back, the word “vigilance” and a question came to mind: Is this a vague hint of what it feels like to constantly survey one’s surroundings for information, for meaning, for threats, for survival?

Between Beauty & Horror unfurled as a series of overlapping vignettes. On one wall, viewers witnessed a mixed group of five men and women standing in a circle, laughing so hard that their mouths are “noiseless.”5 Moments later, someone falls to the floor, shot dead by an unseen assailant for unknown reasons. The subsequent narration rings of imperfect first-person accounts that play out thousands of times over in this gun-lousy country, memory unable to record the details of what precipitated the murder, and a glimpse at the personal trauma that will haunt witnesses for the rest of their days [Image 1].

IMAGE 1.

Installation view of Between Beauty & Horror (2019) by Leila Weefur at Aggregate Space Gallery.

IMAGE 1.

Installation view of Between Beauty & Horror (2019) by Leila Weefur at Aggregate Space Gallery.

The projection on the opposite wall showed three people seated at a table, two of whom draw blackberries from a centrally placed bowl. At first, they eat slowly, carefully slicing each berry with gilded utensils and savoring its lush taste and texture on their tongues. They start feeding each other like lovers might, as seduction and eroticism enfolds them in the shared moment. Before too long, they are assaulting each other, pressing the berries onto their faces and forcing food into each other’s mouths before the previous bites are chewed or swallowed. Here the metaphor of blackberry as black life is most potent: when cultural messaging is forced down the throats of its intended audience, internalized and interpreted as truth, the result could be psychologically if not existentially fatal [Image 2].

IMAGE 2.

Installation view of Between Beauty & Horror (2019) by Leila Weefur at Aggregate Space Gallery.

IMAGE 2.

Installation view of Between Beauty & Horror (2019) by Leila Weefur at Aggregate Space Gallery.

The enervating test comes in resistance. As the violent interaction unfolds, the camera centers on the third person seated at the table. Weefur could be this person, called to life from the essay text as witness to the destructive potential of racist stereotypes as they are embodied and lived by black Americans. Weefur, or their cinematic surrogate, refuses to let the self-loathing messages about blackness feed their self-perception, but they may be a hapless witness as others do so.

When I met Weefur in 2016, they were finishing their MFA at Mills College. A portion of their thesis project Of/Out/Down (2016), a video installation presented over five monitors stacked in a pyramid, features a ripe Roma tomato into which the contents of a fully loaded hypodermic needle is emptied by a sterile-gloved hand. When squeezed, the tomato/test subject’s corporeal totality fails as black ooze erupts from the vessel after the injection. It is an unnerving and visceral viewing experience, one that recalls the gruesome nineteenth-century gynecological experiments performed on enslaved African women. Between Beauty & Horror extended and built confidently on Weefur’s visual interrogation of pervasive racism, blackness and how it is lived, and what is accepted or rejected about that experience that defines the slender line between beauty and horror.

1.
Elena Gross, “The Blackberry Tests,” in Between Beauty & Horror (San Francisco: Sming Sming Books, 2019), 9.
2.
Leila Weefur, “The Line Between,” in Between Beauty & Horror, 50.
3.
Ibid., 51.
4.
Ibid., 56.
5.
Ibid., 57.