fbpx An Affinity for the Radically Avant-Garde:Uplifting Black Experimental Cinema in Museum Spaces & Beyond | The Studio Museum in Harlem

An Affinity for the Radically Avant-Garde:Uplifting Black Experimental Cinema in Museum Spaces & Beyond

Jacarrea Garraway and Charles Jenkins

Two people talk over Zoom

Jacarrea Garraway and Charles Jenkins on Zoom

“Experimental: that which breaks with the doctrinaire and lets the previously unimaginable happen.” —Elizabeth Alexander, 2011 

Since the invention of cinema, the Black community has found ways to picture themselves in worlds that often exclude them. Black filmmakers often face more difficulty releasing their films theatrically, as films by Black directors are typically not seen as what the film industry would call universal.1 If promoters fear that the specific demographic to which a film appeals will isolate other audiences, then it is highly unlikely that a studio will pay for its marketing and wide release. Because of this, many Black filmmakers are independent filmmakers, but not always by choice. As funding and producing one’s film can be challenging, many Black filmmakers use this challenge as a way to tell their stories experimentally.2 In essence, many gems of avant-garde cinema come from a Black mind. Through abstract techniques, topics involving race, capitalism, mental health, community, and other elements that can intersect with the Black experience, film and video pose a solution for those who long to see themselves and their humanity portrayed in a way that prioritizes the body and soul of Black folks. But the questions that remain are: How can these Black experiential films be seen and remain accessible to us? Where does one go and who does one ask if they want to see the work of a Black experimental filmmaker? Are museums and other art institutions the best home for these collections 

Films and video, like physical artworks, need a place to be seen. Normally one views films (shorts and features) in theaters or through streaming services. However, films considered as more on the abstract side of storytelling are typically less accessible to the general public, unless someone knows the exact place to look. It is often hard to find a suitable home for experimental video art and film work, as it is not as easy to curate them into programming since they do not make as much revenue as blockbusters or critically acclaimed arthouse films received well at notable festivals. They exist in a category of their own, and are sometimes hard to categorize at all. For Black independent filmmakers whose cinema is considered experimental, a lack of promotion from notable classic and contemporary art perseverations can be a huge disadvantage to the longevity of their work, as films that reevaluate cinematic conventions and choose alternative methods of approaching the visual narrative art form are less likely to be discoverable and shared with new audiences.3 Institutions like museums should be a space where Black film artists are embraced and cared for. 

Few spaces exist that are dedicated solely to the preservation and exhibition of Black films and motion images, irrespective of the type or genre of film. One could point to George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection at UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the first widely accessible archive for Black film, Indiana University’s Black Film Center & Archive, as institutions that intentionally house work of Black filmmakers. Aside from these spaces and the ephemeral exhibitions that showcase their work, newer Black experimental filmmakers are left to preserve and showcase their work in creative and sustainable ways. Historically, filmmakers that employed avant-garde and surrealist approaches and nonconventional methods of filmmaking were largely relegated to niche festivals, academic spaces, and small art organizations.4 Even fewer opportunities existed for Black experimental filmmakers to showcase their films. Even with the aforementioned archives dedicated to Black film, no physical institutions exclusively promote abstract film and video work created by Black filmmakers.  

In 2018, writer Greg de Cuir Jr. cocurated a film series with experimental filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson titled Affinities or the Weight of Cinema5 for the National Gallery of Art. The series consisted of eight films across various thematic lines that captured the shared interests and concerns of the curators. Intended to be a mashup of both de Cuir and Everson’s “affinities,” Everson deemed the project one that “collages different forms and cinematic gestures of people of African descent, and things that have influenced people of African descent, and experimental film.” The series positions Black experimental film from the twenty-first century at the forefront of the conversation about showcasing different forms of Black visual expression in museums. Some of the visual works in Affinities included Arthur Jafa’s Considerations (1982), Haile Gerima’s Hour Glass (1971), and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine’s Kuhani (2013). The curators included each of these selections in the “An Affinity for Interval” portion of the program, one that sought to highlight the “interval,” which the curator’s described as “how long a work is … and the spaces the work creates.”6 The project was born from a spontaneous meeting and interaction between de Cuir and Everson in Oberhausen, Germany, a mecca for experimental film in Europe. Everson recalls de Cuir as the only Black person he met while there. A nod to the dearth of spaces for showcasing, preserving, and community around Black experimental film, de Cuir deemed Oberhausen “a film center we’re trying to be an alternative to.”  

In October of 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a film series titled “Black Intimacy,” which featured sixteen feature-length films, two short films, and a television episode. Curator Adeze Wilford started this as a research project based on her fascination with displays of intimacy within the Black American community as portrayed on screen. She approached the programming for this exhibition by curating it like a traditional art exhibition for visual art, painting, and sculptures. She thought of each visual piece as an “object” in the gallery. She choose which works were selected and when they would be shown according to a conversation she wanted to have with the audiences about their views of romantic and familial love, deep friendships, and non-heteronormative relationships stretching from the early decades of the twentieth century to the present day.7  

The “Black Intimacy” film series purposefully used Black aesthetics, clear attentiveness to self-representation, and archival documentation of films that are not always easily accessible to the public outside of a museum or private collections. While many of these films can now be found online, the exhibition reminded visitors of their significance to the cinematic canon and provided a context that could help to explain why these films are still not as frequently referenced as some other popular Black films are but that should be. Some films in this series Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978), Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982), Looking For Langston (Issac Julien, 1989), Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Duyne, 1996) and Compensation (Zeinabu irene Davis, 1999) are, considerably, some of most acclaimed independent movies to come from Black filmmakers in twentieth century.8 These films debuted decades before the Academy Award-winning Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), a widely known film that people often associate with the most recent wave of Black arthouse (cinema not solely produced for entertainment’s sake but also to appeal to an artistic and abstract mind) films in the 2010s. In response to the way the film challenged expectations of what a Black hood movie could look like, Barry Jenkins said “instead of taking the hood to the arthouse, we’re gonna take the arthouse to the hood.”9 This sentiment rings true for other Black filmmakers frustrated with the limited ways that Black life in inner cities was commonly portrayed on screen. Like the success of Moonlight, the popularity of this film series strongly suggested there would be a continued demand to keep these representations visible, and to invite new ones into the archives.  

In 2016, curators Erin Christovale and Amir George created a touring exhibition known as Black Radical Imagination,10 which featured a program of experimental short films emphasizing the work of new voices from within the African Diaspora. Christovale’s curatorial focus lies primarily with film and video of the African Diaspora and George is a motion visual artist and film programmer. Their producing team for the series comprised artists who specialized in the intersection of blackness and cinematic language, all drawing from their experiences to create a live curatorial production and open up further conversations about the Black film aesthetic. The idea for the touring film exhibition came from previous discussions pertaining to the boundaries and limitations unspokenly placed upon people of color when it comes to filmmaking and cinematic analysis. The tour brought awareness to projects with a related sense of the unconventional. Some of the participating filmmakers included Amir George (Just a Place, 2014), Ephraim Asili (Many Thousand Gone, 2015), Ja’Tovia Gary (CAKES DA KILLA, 2013), Lauren Kelley (Burlap Interior, 2014; Froufrou Conclusions, 2011) and Terence Nance (Swimming in Your Skin Again, 2015). 

“Afro-surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest and it is our job to uncover it."  —D. Scott Miller, The Afrosurreal Manifesto 

The intellectual real estate of experimental video and film work brought to us by the mind of Black artists evinces that there has been an influx of new work from the past few decades, but we have to ask ourselves, What will happen to this work if it is buried? Will it be just as hard to uncover as other “lost films” from our past? 

The art canon has the potential and the power to create more possibilities for alternative representations within Black narratives. But without the assistance of museums and prominent art spaces, it will be increasingly difficult to keep experimental films visible to current audiences. The Black experimental film movement is often used to reimagine Black history and pioneer a new vision of what the future of Black life could evolve into. And what better place to be able to compare the past with the present and the future than at a place that has the means to contain all three at once.

It is imperative that the work of Black filmmakers, experimental or otherwise, is treated with care and specificity. In a perfect world, Black experimental film and video work could live beyond the term of an exhibition and be displayed in permanent collections in museums, or perhaps in an art institution specifically created for them. Not only would this increase their public visibility, it would allow for current and upcoming Black filmmakers with an abstract sensibility to see a place where their creativity can be housed with love and intentional design. With the increasing popularity of artistic movements such as Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism, and with Black image makers who are the masterminds behind many growing aesthetic trends in film, music, television, social media branding, fashion, and more, the world is now opening up to embrace the radically avant-garde and to let the previously unimaginable happen.    

Notes

[1] Ann Hornaday, “In Hollywood, Must ‘White’ Always Equal ‘Universal’?” Washington Post, January 26, 2016, washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/oscarssowhite-its-the-audiences-not-just-the-industry/2016/02/25/c823257c-d731-11e5-be55-2cc3c1e4b76b_story.html.  

[2] Ray Lexis-Olivier, “In Every Era, Black Filmmakers of L.A. Struggle to Tell Their Stories,” KCET, April 4, 2022, kcet.org/shows/artbound/in-every-era-black-filmmakers-of-l-a-struggle-to-tell-their-stories.  

[3] Yohana Desta, “Criterion President Admits Glaring Lack of Black Filmmakers: ‘We Have to Fix That,’” Vanity Fair, August 20, 2020, vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/08/criterion-collection-black-filmmakers.  

[4] Danny Birchall, “The Avant-Garde Archive Online,” Film Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, 2009, pp. 12–14., doi.org/10.1525/fq.2009.63.1.12.  

[5] Greg de Cuir Jr., Affinities, or the Weight of Cinema, nga.gov/features/affinities-weight-of-cinema.html. 

[6] 2018 Winter Film Program, National Gallery of Art, nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/calendar/film/DFP%20archive%20pdfs/2018-winter-film.pdf. 

[7] “Speaking with Curator Adeze Wilford on Moma's Black Intimacy Series,” blackfilm.com, December 18, 2018, blackfilm.com/read/2017/10/speaking-with-curator-adeze-wilford-on-moma-black-intimacy-series/.  

[8] Artel Great, “Black Cinema Matters," New Republic, June 23, 2022, newrepublic.com/article/159336/black-cinema-matters.  

[9] V. Renée, “'Taking the Arthouse to the Hood:' an in-Depth Analysis of Best Picture Winner 'Moonlight',” No Film School, February 27, 2017, nofilmschool.com/2017/02/taking-arthouse-hood-depth-analysis-moonlight.  

[10] Black Radical Imagination,” MOCA, moca.org/program/black-radical-imagination.