Barbara McCullough presents distinct, ritualistic films at WCMA

Artist Barbara McCullough introduced her films last weekend at WCMA. Photo courtesy of cinema.ucla.edu
Artist Barbara McCullough introduced her films last weekend at WCMA. Photo courtesy of cinema.ucla.edu

The screening of Barbara McCullough’s films at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) last Thursday proved to be an interesting and enigmatic night. McCullough, an experimental film and video artist was present as an extension of the “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80” exhibit currently showing at WCMA. McCullough, although not directly featured in the exhibit, worked with many of the artists in the show, commenting on and exploring similar themes. In fact, she commented that seeing the exhibit “was an emotional experience” full of the gratification of seeing her friends and acquaintances finally achieve the recognition they deserved but never received.

The first of McCullough’s own works to be shown was Water Ritual # 1: An Urban Rite of Purification. A blank black screen set to the soundtrack of chirping crickets and one single chiming bell made for an eerie introduction to the short film. This opened into a beautiful African-American woman standing in the doorway of a shanty hut, clothed gloriously in a headscarf, a long skirt and linen shirt. One would assume the setting to be rural, perhaps in Africa. The subsequent zoomed-out shot challenged this expectation, revealing a surrounding stretch of highway. The unexpected continued to emerge as the protagonist sat down in front of a circle of rocks and began to play with smaller rocks and a coconut shell. The tribal drumming overlaid with electro-jazz accompanied her actions, embodying the contrast between the hut, the tribal ritual and the highway. The camera shots then began to build momentum in time with her continued ritualistic fiddling. They zoomed to a close-up of her blowing powder from her hands, eventually panning the surroundings to focus on a set of bare walking feet. The camera scanned upward from these feet to reveal a naked woman in consonance with the beginnings of a voiceover about the purification rituals taking place. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the camera then moved to a close up on the woman’s genitals while in the act of urination before exiting onto a white screen, marking the conclusion of the film.

This strange but wonderful quality similarly characterized the second of McCullough’s films to be shown. Shopping Bag Spirits evolved from a reaction to a weekly meeting of women artists in which McCullough was included, and the water rituals that they would partake in. The husband of one of the artists apparently became quite upset over the idea, declaiming such rituals to be dangerous especially when performed in ignorance. In response, McCullough began asking her friends about the meaning of ritual to them and as such the film was born. It starts with a neon-colored version of Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification, lending a translucent effect to the bodies. The original speed was also increased almost two-fold until the film sped into a close up of the artist herself speaking about her two films. Of Water Ritual # 1 she says “it was a filmic exercised when I realized for the first time that I have an affinity for ritual.” Shopping Bag Spirits “simply explains why some artists have an affinity for ritual in their works. The video then features a series of interviews with artists of all kinds and their opinions and interpretations of ritual. The first of these was of David Hammons discussing his work “Spirit Catcher.” Hammons spoke in a circular, nonsensical manner that characterized the tone of McCullough’s film as a whole. He made a plethora of such statements as, “I am trying to make this as uncontrived as possible, but at the same time making it very contrived” or “it was what it was … before I messed with it” and “this could be a doodle or an earthworks or a sculpture or none of them.” Indeed, his work appeared no more than an assemblage of trash and vague structures of mud. Hammons claimed that they appeared “like a whole bunch of musicians getting together.” Unfortunately, a similar ambiguity and slightly pretentious focus on profundity and conceptualism trailed through the rest of McCullough’s film. It made for a simultaneously humorous and frustrating experience.

While the film at times overreached, it was ultimately an eclectic demonstration of what the introductory speaker termed “the richness of the community of arts lovers, makers and students here in Williamstown.”