One in four cowboys was black. Thousands of African-Americans, a large portion of whom were freed slaves, helped to settle the Old West. ‘These are black-owned things’ Solange sings on ‘Almeda’ (2019), defiantly spinning a cowboy hat on her finger in the visuals for the song; perhaps a symbolic ‘fuck you’ to the erasure of black cowboys from American history books. The redressing of Western culture, while concurrently embarking on a personal spiritual expedition, is the heart of Solange’s interdisciplinary film When I Get Home (2019), which takes its name from her latest album. As the title suggests, the singer leads us back to her hometown of Houston and, while introducing us to the city’s cultural core, ultimately reconnects with herself. The evocative 41-minute film – which is being screened internationally at art institutions including New York’s Brooklyn Museum and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – also features contributions from artists including Rob Pruitt and Jacolby Satterwhite and attempts to repurpose the music video from promotional material into an artwork of museum quality.
A pendulum oscillating between vision and reflection, this musical rodeo is set in an undefined future. Geometric sets and synchronized choreography give the work a majestic quality. Solange’s purposeful attention to atmospheric detail is paramount in conveying her fervent messages about black formation in spaces of significance. This feeds into an ongoing narrative and concern with black empowerment and enlightenment: for instance, the appearance in the film of the Rothko Chapel – founded in 1971 by art patrons John and Dominique de Menil – is significant because, as Solange explained in an interview with The New York Times, it was one of the first art spaces she had access to, somewhere she ‘would go […] and sit for hours’. The I.M. Pei-designed Dallas City Hall (1978) also features in the film, along with a vast rodeo arena constructed in the desert of Marfa. By featuring cultural sites and artist-made sets as backdrops, Solange reinforces her intention to create a work of cinema rather than a glossy commercial complete with superfluous props or locations.
When I Get Home transcends the ephemeral nature of regular pop-music videos in that it doesn’t try to be linear or instantly digestible. It swerves in and out different narratives and universes. In ‘Things I Imagined’ (2019), Solange ‘catches the holy spirit’ before a bejewelled figure, something she describes as an ‘energy so strong it could transform your tongue or cause you to faint or shout and dance in ways that were out of your body’. In ‘Stay Flo’ (2019) a woman dances around a spaceship console before hauling it across the desert. Colour, pattern and shape have been key players in the musician’s past visuals and, here, recurring motifs give the work a conspicuous identity and a strong sense of self. The repeated use of black, brown, circles, spheres, kaleidoscopic sets, slow pan-outs and co-ordinated models creates an aesthetic language that enables the work to be viewed more readily through a visual-art lens.
A notable contribution to When I Get Home is Satterwhite’s 3-D animation for the song ‘Sound of Rain’ (2019); a diversion from live action footage to the digital sphere. These scenes draw on rodeo iconography and feature flying horses and naked cowboys within a queer dreamscape. The segment by Satterwhite, whose practice often uses Afrofuturism to explore what he has defined as ‘going to outer space to avoid the politics of being on earth’ in an interview with Complex, is undoubtedly the most surreal of the film. His involvement in the project is testament to Solange’s genuine understanding and appreciation of the art world. In discussing When I Get Home, the singer speaks of being inspired by black women artists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud and Faith Ringgold, as well as the importance of screening the film to a live audience because it reinforces the importance of collectivity.
What sets a Solange-owned thing apart from works by her musical contemporaries is her commitment to continuity. She has enriched her chopped and screwed, jazz and hip-hop inspired album with visuals that – in their idiosyncratic use of symmetry, choreography and cinematography – do their utmost to honour a history that has been omitted from the public domain while allowing her to comfortably claim the title of the polymath.
The extended version of Solange, When I Get Home, 2019, will be screened at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, on 30 August 2019.
Main image: Solange, When I Get Home, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Apple Music