New York-based Xaviera Simmons explores the boundaries between fiction and reality in photography, sculpture, performance, installations, assemblage, mixed-media, and video art to examine assumed notions about African American identities. She uses landscape as a base on which to reveal complicated characters and non-linear narratives. Her staged photographic images construct diverse narratives in personal histories and identities as she is “keyed into the American historical context.” Simmons’ work allows viewers and artists to participate in the environments she has created.
Simmons always knew that she wanted to be an artist. She graduated from Bard College in 2004 after spending two years on a walking pilgrimage retracing the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. For one of these years she was in the company of a group of Buddhist Monks “in walking meditation and communal living.” This experience provided her with an historic base for her early works.
In 2005, she completed the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in Studio Art while also completing a two year actor-training conservatory. She was a visiting lecturer at the Graduate Department of Sculpture at Yale University. In 2016, she was a visiting artist at the Vermont Studio Center and at the University of California Los Angeles’ Department of Art.
Her 2008 “One Day and Back Then (Standing)” is a photograph that shows a person standing in sea reeds in blackface, wearing black, and staring out at viewers in defiance. Her “Electric Relaxation” is an installation at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston where hundreds of LP’s were attached to a wall in a place where people could listen to the music.
In 2008, her “How To Break Your Own Heart – Visitors Welcome” was a storefront installation and performance space open to the public where people could gather and musicians could play music. This became part of a new book series for young artists.
In 2015, Simmons won a grant which supported a research trip to Iceland where she took photographs that were incorporated into new photographic compositions, video works, and performance art. Other grants have allowed her to continue her video work.
In the summer of 2019, her piece “Convene” was installed at Hunters Point South Park in Long Island City, the western tip of Queens, New York. Along the shore of the East River were overturned aluminum canoes that were painted in colors of various flags of the nations of immigrant communities that live in Queens, the most diverse borough of New York City.
The exhibit, “Soft Power: Wielding Influence (Gently) Through Art” was recently shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through February, 2020. This exhibition showed the ways different artists use their work to explore their roles in society and to effect change in the world. For her contribution to the exhibit, Simmons showed an assemblage of some 150 color-blocked panels with text. One of her panels stated: “Angry white mobs intentionally destroyed whole Negro towns.” This was inspired by the great African American artist, Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration Series,” which she saw at New York’s Museum of Modern Art when she was young.
Simmons’ piece “Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band a Militia” consists of a string of billboards along a busy road in southern California’s Coachella Valley’s exhibition of Desert X 2021. The billboards were image-and-text statements of the topic of Black reparations and redistribution of wealth. Even the blistering title of the work evokes the horror of slavery and the determination of Blacks to seek justice.
Simmons’ work has been included in major museum exhibitions including San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, The Phillips Collection, National Museum of Women in the Arts. She has had solo shows and major installations at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, Studio Museum in Harlem, Brooklyn Museum, and others.
Her works are included in major museum collections including the Guggenheim Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, the High Museum in Atlanta, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Agnes Gund Art Collection, the Nasher Museum, and Miami’s Perez Art Museum. In 2020, she was a visiting lecturer and Solomon Fellow in the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard University.