A couple of months ago, the artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith gathered a bare-bones crew for a guerrilla-style shoot — no permits; the locations half-scouted, half-figured-out on the fly — around the land that she calls her home and her obsession: Los Angeles.
They were filming the city — four days and nights in a van, shooting from the ocean to East L.A., from humble Watts blocks to the San Gabriel foothills. But more than this, they were tuning into the city’s signals, as you might on an old radio — with the words of a Los Angeles poet, Wanda Coleman, as their tonal and emotional compass.
They made long tracking shots of the beach or roads lined with fast-food outlets and auto shops. They took slow panoramas from hilltops, and held still for minutes, sometimes hours, on downtown garment-shop blocks or railroad crossings. If people entered the frame they kept filming, letting the city come to them.
This week, Smith premieres the film, “The Wanda Coleman Songbook,” at 52 Walker, a gallery in TriBeCa, through March 16. It’s a New York debut but a deeply Los Angeles project — an ode by a resident seeking language to make sense of L.A.’s seductions and precarity, while honoring a creative precursor — Coleman died in 2013 at age 67 — in whom she finds insight and strength.
Video — four channels projected floor-to-ceiling — is just one part of this multi-sensory experience. In lieu of a soundtrack there’s an album of seven specially commissioned songs from musicians like Meshell Ndegeocello and Kelsey Lu — each one a free interpretation of a Coleman poem. Visitors may lounge on sofas and drop the stylus on the EP, which runs the same length as the video but can be started at any point.
Completing the immersive effect, shadows projected on the rear wall evoke Los Angeles street art and sights — an Olmec head; a raven on a power line. A bespoke scent — inspired by the earth and flora of Griffith Park — wafts through the gallery.
With its layers and synesthetic appeal, the project, which was curated by Ebony L. Haynes, the director of 52 Walker, explores Smith’s conflicted love for a city that is hard and getting harder — notably for the poor and for the city’s declining Black community, now 8.2 percent of its population — yet infused with disconcerting beauty.
“I find L.A. beautiful and horrific, and I love trying to see it that way,” Smith said. “You can have such profound rage at the city and then be gobstopped at a giant feral bush of bougainvillea. And there’s someone sleeping underneath that bush. It’s all of it at once.”
Smith, 56, who grew up in Sacramento, has had an unusual creative journey back to Los Angeles, where she lived in the 1990s. She emerged as a filmmaker with experimental works and a feature, “Drylongso,” which earned praise at Sundance in 1999 but failed to secure distribution — consistent with Hollywood’s low interest at that time in Black female directors and topics.
Decamping from the industry, she moved to Texas and then Chicago. There, she reinvented herself as an interdisciplinary artist, expanding into drawings, textile banners, installations, performances and processions — even wallpaper. After years under the radar in both film and art worlds, she appeared in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, with multiple museum shows since.
Honors too have followed, including the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Prize in 2020 and the Heinz Award for the Arts in 2022. And last year the long unfindable “Drylongso” came out of obscurity with a restoration, theatrical release and induction in the Criterion Collection.
In both film and other projects, Smith makes a practice of honoring her important influences, folding into her work their words or music, or filming at sites important in their lives. Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane recur frequently in these ways.
Her brilliant 2018 film, “Sojourner,” invokes an expanded pantheon, including the assemblage artist Noah Purifoy, the feminist Combahee River Collective, and Rebecca Cox Jackson, who founded a 19th-century Black Shaker community. An ongoing drawing series, meanwhile, depicts covers of Black feminist and other books that have shaped Smith intellectually.
But when she turned to Coleman, who was informally called the “poet laureate of Los Angeles” but less-known elsewhere, it was to address, Smith said, a downright existential concern.
Smith had moved back to Los Angeles in 2017 to teach at the California Institute of the Arts. (She now teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles.) On returning, she said, she found her love for the city undimmed, yet the circumstances of ordinary people, especially Black people, increasingly dire.
Reading Coleman — another Black female artist with love and anger for the city — helped Smith find her bearings. “Black people have been displaced and erased from L.A. in a way that continues to shock and infuriate me,” she added. “This idea of a Black L.A., which honestly was like the 20th-century fuel of this city, is struggling for life now. I was trying to find something to latch onto to think about this or put language to it. And that was Wanda.”
Coleman was intense, charismatic, an L.A. original. “A force of nature … the conscience of the L.A. literary scene,” the Los Angeles Times critic David Ulin wrote in an appreciation after her death. “A real in-the-flesh, flesh-eating poet who also happened to be a real black woman,” said the poet Terrance Hayes, introducing a volume of her selected works in 2019.
Raised in Watts, she dropped out of college for 1960s militant politics, but soon made writing her radical practice — sustained (barely) by various service, clerical and “pink-collar” jobs. She briefly edited Players, a soft-core magazine for Black men, in the early 1970s. She later won an Emmy as a writer for the soap “Days of Our Lives.”
Her poetry, published since the late 1970s by Black Sparrow Press, was raw, often rude, sexually explicit, bitingly funny, full of cleareyed fury at the systems and biases she faced as a working-class Black woman — and acerbically insightful on intimacy across class and race. It was also virtuosic, playing with forms from sonnets to the blues and a plethora of literary references. She read it like jazz.
In the 1990s, Smith was vaguely aware of Coleman. “I had read a poem or two,” she said. Now, diving into the complete oeuvre, she was struck by how its perspective brought back her own precarious early days in the city, carless and riding the bus — and by the fierce dignity the author claimed for herself and the people she depicted.
Coleman wrote “without self-pity, but with total clarity,” Smith said. When she writes about violence and abuse, “what you are experiencing is the processing of this terror and violence and a desire to survive it — a belief that your life has value and you’re going to make your way.”
Before long, Smith said, she was thinking of Coleman as she moved through the city, attentive to those on its margins. “When you’re sitting in your car in L.A., Wanda is the best guide,” she said. But once her project hatched, it was not with a film in mind.
Instead, she wanted to make a record album: To share poems with musicians she admired, “to know if they connect with Wanda, how they connect, what it sounds like.” Shot after the music was recorded, the video “is a wrapper or blanket that’s trying to envelop you while you listen to what these artists do with Wanda’s work.”
The seven tracks were made separately, with different artists, yet the result — somewhere in the realm of jazz and avant-garde soul — is lyrical and cohesive. The roster is impressive: Alice Smith; Jamila Woods and Standing on the Corner; moor mother and Aquiles Navarro; Jeff Parker and Ruby Parker; Shala Miller; Ndegeocello and Lu.
Woods, who is based in Chicago, said she felt resonance between Gwendolyn Brooks’s street-level feel for that city and Coleman’s Los Angeles. She picked the poem “Wanda in Worryland” for its “gritty vulnerability,” she said — “the intrusive thoughts and external pressures and assumptions that haunt your interior space.”
Alice Smith found Coleman “very intense — I had to really figure it out,” she said by phone. Her lush, echoing track builds off a few lines of “In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Together.” She found herself wishing tenderness on Coleman, who she felt “could use a little bit of somebody to handle her with some kind of care.”
By the time of the shoot, Cauleen Smith said, Coleman’s work felt like a trusted guide in looking closely at her city.
It pulled her toward long slow takes, allowing life to happen: “Can we just stare at this strip mall for 10 minutes? Can we just watch people go in and out of the liquor store?” And when things got uncomfortable — how long is it appropriate or productive to show a person disoriented at a bus stop, or laboriously pushing a cart across the street? — thinking about Coleman helped her sense where to draw the line.
Coursing through Coleman’s work, Smith said, is deep love for the total Los Angeles with all its contradictions. “She drank up this whole city,” Smith said. “She understood it so well.”
Now Smith, too, has found that the more she loves on Los Angeles, the more it loves her back — like the strangers she encountered while shooting, who were kind and funny. “It’s really disarming,” she said. “The distance between the political rhetoric of the city, which is cruel, and the tenderness and joy of the people is wild.”