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About the Artwork

The phrase “Freedom is Not Guaranteed,” is taken from the title of a large-scale artwork by renowned artist Xaviera Simmons displayed on the 9th and G corner of the MLK Library this fall. An artist whose vast practice includes photography, painting, video, sound, sculpture, text, and installation, Simmons has created billboards for commissions across the United States. Each billboard pushes us to visually and linguistically consider the true meaning of freedom and repair in a country where those freedoms continue to be taken away or have never been realized. 

Left: Freedom is Not Guaranteed Billboard, Photo by William Glaser; Right: Portrait of Xaviera Simmons by John Edmonds, 2021

Left: Freedom is Not Guaranteed, Billboard Artwork by Xaviera Simmons. Photo: William Glaser; Right: Portrait of Xaviera Simmons, 2021. Photo: John Edmonds

Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery | Original commission by For Freedoms | Presented for UNCENSORED DC by the DC Public Library Foundation

Simmons’ artwork is part of a series of photographs investigating the contemporary political landscape. In the photographs, a figure, wearing all black, silhouetted against a golden landscape points commandingly beyond the horizon. Written in bold lettering across the image, the phrase ‘FREEDOM IS NOT GUARANTEED’ references a multitude of allusions; some of which are Indigenous sovereignty, the institution of slavery, the legacies of colonialism, white supremacy, and American empire building. This message takes on renewed urgency at a time when book bans are on the rise nationwide, in particular titles that address racially based inequalities or that center on LGBTQ themes.

Installation in progress, Freedom is Not Guaranteed by Xaviera Simmons, MLK Library

Installation in progress, Freedom is Not Guaranteed, Billboard Artwork by Xaviera Simmons, MLK Library, Fall 2023

The artist has said: 

“When I contemplate the phrase ‘freedom is not guaranteed,’ … I start with the most vulnerable, those are the people who should be centered at every turn. I am in Los Angeles right now, where the people most vulnerable are the unhoused, many of whom are Black men and women. The most vulnerable are also Trans persons and the multitude of Indigenous communities across this country whose lands and lifeways are the foundation and continuation of everything we have here.” 

Within Simmons’ practice, her work aims to navigate art, social and formal histories, and the narratives that we construct--or are constructed for us. Simmons also creates artworks for their sheer formal qualities and other aesthetic concerns tied to the contemporary art canon forming during her lifetime.

Originally commissioned by the artist collective For Freedoms in 2018 as part of a 50 states billboard campaign, Freedom is Not Guaranteed has been exhibited in South Dakota and in Brooklyn, NY. Each location–and the changing political climate–brings a new layer of meaning to the work. Simmons’ message resonates in Washington, D.C as it is the seat of the country’s political power and is a place meant to hold the varying voices of the United States.

Artist Biography

Xaviera Simmons’ sweeping practice includes photography, painting, video, sound, sculpture, text and installation. Her work engages the formal histories of art through the construction of landscape, language, and the complex histories of the United States and its continuing empire building internally and on a global scale.  Simmons received her BFA from Bard College (2004) after spending two years on a walking pilgrimage retracing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with Buddhist Monks. She completed the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in Studio Art (2005) while simultaneously completing a two-year actor-training conservatory with The Maggie Flanigan Studio, NY. The artist has exhibitions, performances, large scale installations and web-based projects slated to open globally through 2025. Recent solo exhibitions include Crisis Makes A Book Club at The Queens Museum (2023) Nectar at Kadist, Paris (2022), The Structure, The Labor, the Pause at Sarasota Art Museum (2022), Convene at Sculpture Center, New York; Overlay at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University; The Gold Miner’s Mission to Dwell on the Tide Line at The Museum of Modern Art- The Modern Window, New York; and CODED at The Kitchen, New York.  In 2021 Simmons was the inaugural guest editor of Art Basel Magazine. Simmons has held teaching positions at Yale University, Columbia University and Harvard University. In Spring 2020 she was awarded the prestigious The Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from Bard College. Simmons is a recipient of Socrates Sculpture Park's Artist Award (2019) and  Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Award (2018).

Related Program

Freedom is Not Guaranteed:

A conversation with artist Xaviera Simmons and Rhea Combs

Portrait of Xaviera Simmons, Credit: John Edmonds; Portrait of Rhea Combs, Credit: April Greer

Kick off Banned Books Week with an artist conversation with renowned artist Xaviera Simmons, whose large-scale artwork is displayed on the MLK Library’s exterior and inspires this year’s theme: Freedom is Not Guaranteed.

On Monday, October 2, at 6:30 p.m., Dr. Rhea L. Combs, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the National Portrait Gallery, will discuss the evolution of Simmon’s image and text-based billboards in relationship to Simmons’ overall artistic practice. Each billboard is a provocative statement in public space, rooted in the artist’s ongoing investigation of experience, memory, abstraction, and present and future histories, specifically shifting notions surrounding landscape. The artist also lays claim to the vast category of images within the public’s domain to make use of these works. 

This conversation will include a sneak preview of Reading Work: Season One, a new multi-year online project that encourages a continuous political education, distributes books and monetary funds; and explores the nuances of creative labor. The project is produced and directed by Xaviera Simmons with an interdisciplinary group of artist and non-artist collaborators with contributions from participants in over half of the 50 states. Reading Work: Season One is generously funded by Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice.

Visit this page for updates.