Guest post by Terri Francis.
African Diaspora cinemas and experimental films are established galaxies of research and creative endeavor, but rarely do they overlap in our everyday sense of things, despite a substantial and growing number of relevant and prominent artists and scholars whose work requires just such a comparative approach. You have to go out of your way to see them. They screen on loops in galleries or play for cozy audiences in microcinemas. And you’ll find the avant-noir in museums or grand theaters like the IU Cinema. We need programs like Avant-Noir 2 screening tonight at IU Cinema that provide the rare opportunity to see these types of out-of-the way movies, and to participate in the post-film discussions that offer learning and affective opportunities for conversation and sharing ideas.
Rubrics like Afrosurrealism and Avant-Noir help us reimagine the “black” in black film and the “film” in black film. As scholars Michael Gillespie and Racquel Gates wrote recently in Film Quarterly, “the study of black film and media is an interdisciplinary proposition requiring innovative and evolving entanglements of art, politics, culture, and history.” Experimental media in the African Diaspora is situated transnationally as well as within the changing aesthetic dynamics of Black Diaspora art, literature, and music.
The term Afrosurrealism originated with Amiri Baraka’s concept of “Afro-Surrealist Expressionism,” which he used to describe the unique sensory features of fellow poet Henry Dumas’s work. He said Dumas created “an entirely different world organically connected to this one. … fables … magical, resonating dream emotions and images; shifting ambiguous terror, mystery, implied revelation. But they are also stories of real life.” That oscillation – and sometimes not even an oscillation but simultaneity — of the marvelous and the street might be what holds Afrosurrealist films together but then things do fall apart.
Afrosurrealism grooves on artifice, reflexivity, and performance, such as what you’d find in the lyrical neorealist works of filmmakers like William Greaves, Melvin Van Peebles, Isaac Julien, Julie Dash, Christopher Harris, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Terence Nance, and Kevin Jerome Everson. In a special close-up in Black Camera I wrote, “Afrosurrealist films can look [and sound] as though they’ve been buried in earth and have come up through the ocean. Afrosurrealism might be a sous-realism, a realism beneath.” Artists might employ a variety of techniques to show us what’s in their mind’s eye: cutting up the film, painting on the film, re-recording and distorting the image, recreating archival material with different actors, extravagant use of repetition, messing with the sound – they do all kinds of “wrong” things to wake us up to a new experience of the film-as-a-film, as an object of art but also as a DIY hands-on project.
Curator Greg de Cuir conceived of his first Avant-Noir program (presented at the ICA Artists’ Film Biennial in 2014) as “an intervention into the status quo of alternative film and video curating.” The artists presented in his second Avant-Noir program include a mixture of young and established professionals, both of African and non-African descent. These collected short films and videos play with identity and the notion that the personal is political; employ performance as a means to narrate social reality; and utilize archival footage to reconstruct cinematic representations.
Avant-Noir 2 expands the Black Film Center/Archive’s exploration of the reverberations between the genre of nonconformist filmmaking known as “the avant-garde” and the parallel insurgent cinemas of the African Diaspora. In 2013, BFC/A and IU Cinema presented KB Boyce and Celeste Chan’s MIX NYC program, Exploding Lineage: Queer of Color Histories in Experimental Media. In 2014, Adoma Owusu screened her films in Brigance Library and conducted research at the BFC/A during a week-long visit. In 2015, Mike Henderson presented Just Another Notion, a collection of his experimental films from the Academy Film Archive. IU Cinema welcomed Ja’Tovia Gary along with the New Negress Film Society in the fall of 2015. And last spring, BFC/A and Spirit of ‘68 presented an Evening with Christopher Harris at The Bishop.
If experimental media gets lost sometimes between the art world and the indie/commercial film worlds it’s because of the perception that it’s too weird for primetime. But the reality is that experimentation is what black media and creativity is all about. Ever heard of hip hop? Jazz? Reggae? in one way or another we have all enjoyed the fruits of African diasporic creative experimentation in music, food, language, and cinema. As Geoffrey Jacques argued in Quiet as It’s Kept, “Abstraction, fragmentation, a sense of the fluidity of identity and identity as expressed in and through the material world constitute a significant visual tradition in black culture.” You name something out of black diaspora cultures and you’ll find syncretism and thoughtful play at its core. Black media experiments with a range of practices, taking up queries on what can come of the tools, images, structures of the past and present, of there and here: “blackness in film and media is always already an incitement, a question, and a process” (Gates and Gillespie).
Martine Syms, My Only Idol is Reality, 2007, SD video, colour, sound, 7 min.
Dineo Seshee Bopape, Bird’s Milk, 2009, HD video, colour, sound, 6 min.
Loretta Fahrenholz, Ditch Plains, 2013, HD video, colour, sound, 30 min.
Luther Price, Nice Baskets, 2006, 16 mm, colour, sound, 8 min.
Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Kuhani, 2013, HD video, colour, sound, 7 min.
Rä di Martino, Short History of Abandoned Sets, 2012, HD video, colour, sound, 8 min.
Cauleen Smith, Songs for Earth & Folk, 2013, 16mm transferred to video, colour, sound, 11 min.
The shorts program Avant-Noir: Experimental Media from the African Diaspora will be shown at the IU Cinema on January 19 at 6:30 pm. Curator Greg de Cuir Jr. and author Michael Boyce Gillespie (Film Blackness) are scheduled to be present.
This screening is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, College Arts and Humanities Institute, Underground Film Series, Center for Documentary Research and Practice, Cinema and Media Studies, and IU Cinema.
Additional events with Greg de Cuir:
- Career Talk on Curating will be on Monday, January 22, from 11:30 am-12:45 pm. The location is the Phyllis Klotman Room (LI044B) at the Black Film Center/Archive in Wells Library.
- Show & Tell workshop will be held at the Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF) on Friday, January 26, at 1:00 pm. The ALF is located at 851 North Range Road. Space is limited for this event. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Greg de Cuir Show & Tell.”
In addition to being the Director of the Black Film Center/Archive, Dr. Terri Francis (U Chicago 2004, English) is an Associate Professor at IU who researches Josephine Baker and Afrosurrealism. Her forthcoming book The Cinematic Josephine Baker excavates how Baker pioneered her defining role in early African American cinema, playing characters she neither authored, in a conventional sense, nor fully controlled, while tracing critical issues of type, image and genre.