I’ve always liked what Jesus said about love, but I’ve never quite believed in God and I’m always a little uncomfortable in churches. Or maybe it’s my belief in some abstract version of God that makes me regret an inability to buy into His teachings, while I’ve always loved Christian iconography and architecture.
My faith, or lack thereof, changes all the time, but the closest I come to transcendence is looking at art. “PLAY†PREY,” a multi-venue exhibition of new video and sculpture by artist and curator Leila Weefur, explores religious experience as complex and ever-unfolding rather than an act of blind faith.
“PLAY†PREY: The Old Testament” at Telematic Media Arts in SOMA features a video of a static shot of a burning Bible set against a desert backdrop, the film shifting subtly between forward and backward movement, smoke and flames slipping into the pages of the book before bursting forth again. The image suggests reclamation and resistance, as well as setting a tone for the themes of self creation explored further in the second half of the show. The Bible here functions like the burning bush from the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, the origination of Moses’ message from Yahweh and as a springboard for the exhibition’s themes.
There are also sculptural elements in the installation of “Testament.” A mirror hangs opposite the screen, and one can either face the video directly or watch in the reflection from inside the piece. The latter was my preferred experience, the physical implication making me consider my literal and metaphysical relationship to faith. Sandy Williams IV, who starred in Weefur’s 2019 video installation “Between Beauty & Horror,” contributed a sculptural piece to “Testament”: “Wax Monument VII (The Cross)” is a heap of 506 small cross-shaped candles, referencing the number of times “fire” appears in the Bible.
The imagery here isn’t purely iconoclastic; there’s a generative element. Fire has connotations of purification and rebirth, and I couldn’t help but think of the myth of the phoenix and wonder what rises from the ashes of faith denied, or at least faith questioned. The answer comes in the second installment of the exhibition, which delves deeper into the experience of faith as a negotiation of the self. The three-channel film narrative “PLAY†PREY: A Gospel” at Minnesota Street Project in Dogpatch tells the story of a queer Black child’s relationship to God and the church, with a lyrical monologue delivered in voiceover by 10-year-old Demetrius Cooks-Watson.
Each screen intercuts religious iconography, from a swinging cross to the forbidden fruit, with choreographed performances by two adult actors, over a soundtrack produced by musical duo KYN, for which Sandra Lawson-Ndu, of the band Bells Atlas, provided vocals. The actors perform renditions of children’s games, including hide and seek, patty-cake and tug of war.
“I wanted to bring out the intimacy, physicality, and sometimes uncomfortable nature of regular children’s games,” Weefur said. “There are some creepy undertones to some of those things, especially when they’re being enacted by adults. And I knew that those actions would also bring an innocence to the church.”
Duality is present throughout the work, not only in the dichotomy of the creepy/innocent performance. Addressing God, the narrator says, “They say you’re always watching,” a sentiment that both comforts and unsettles. At one point in the film, the actors are seen holding camcorders, a break of the fourth wall that riffs on this idea of the God’s panoptic presence, suggesting that the artist, the performer and the individual wields this power, too, in the creation of both art and the self.
Like “Testament,” “Gospel” features a sculptural component (Weefur’s own) that adds a layer to the viewer’s position. Three archways are erected in the gallery, at once framing and obscuring the screens from view, depending on one’s location. “Something film does for me is invigorate the senses,” Weefur said. “In order for me to enhance that experience, I want to make viewers more aware of their bodies in the space.” This choreographic element locates viewers in the room and their bodies in relation to the work, physically reproducing the fluctuating experience of faith the film explores.
“Gospel” was filmed inside Havenscourt Community Church in Oakland, where Weefur was baptized, and while the narrative is informed by Weefur’s personal experience, it’s only autobiographical to a point. “It’s important for me to detach my personal experience because it gives room and freedom to a narrative to reach other people,” Weefur said. “It allows people to see or recognize parts of themselves that haven’t been spoken to or something they don’t know how to name or express,” the non-gendered child’s voice and the ambiguous genders of the actors creating points of ambiguity for viewers to enter the work.
Weefur no longer attends church or considers themselves Christian, but identifies as spiritual. “Something that really pushed me to make this project is the awareness of my spirituality,” Weefur said, “and I can’t remove the influence of my Baptist upbringing from that. When I consider how to approach an audience, it’s very similar to how a preacher might consider preaching. It’s about addressing someone that is looking for wholeness in what already exists in the world, building narrative out of what is there, and finding community from the elements that we discover within ourselves that connect us.” The same, I believe, can be said of art.
“I don’t want to face you knowing that I can’t be myself and I can’t face you because I do not yet know myself,” the narrator of “Gospel” says. The passage reflects the sense of reclamation present in the image of the burning Bible, the power of self-creation rather than having been created in God’s image. “All I know is that I was created,” the narrator continues, “not how, not why, just that I was.” Rather than bleak, this line of existential questioning is empowering. For me, seeing “PLAY†PREY” was like going to church. Like the artist who builds their own worlds, each of us acts as our own Gods: We write our own narratives; preach our own gospels; keep our own faith.
IF YOU GO
PLAY†PREY: The Old Testament
Where: Telematic, 323 10th St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; through Dec. 11
Note: “PLAY†PREY: A Gospel” is at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F., from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Dec. 4. Visit minnesotastreetproject.com.