The New Black Renaissance: Highlights from Jenn Nkiru’s 2018 Promax BDA keynote address

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Fists of Fury

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Delegates at the 2018 PromaxBDA Africa Conference were treated to a closing keynote address by British-Nigerian filmmaker Jenn Nkiru, who – through examples of her work and resounding words about identity and representation, as well as the centrality of the continent of Africa to the story of the world – outlined her vision of “a new diasporic black renaissance” in global art.

The session – co-presented by the SABC – began with a show reel of Nkiru’s work, including her collaborations with the musician Kamasi Washington (such as “Hub-Tone” and “Fists of Fury”) and the short films Rebirth Is Necessary (2017) and En Vogue (2014).

With their bold compositions, dark, arresting colour palettes and hypnotic rhythms, the films have a curious quality of being both highly cerebral and powerfully emotive. As a director, Nkiru is blessed with the ability to communicate complex ideas about culture and identity in clear and emphatic images; a talent that has been keenly appreciated by audiences around the world, and one which forms the backbone of her artistic vision.

Her interesting treatment of colour – particularly in low-light settings – is showcased in the dance-based film En Vogue, where sequinned performers are backed by a snappy grime soundtrack. The nascent concerns of identity and representation in this video are given fuller expression in Rebirth Is Necessary, which opens with a sampled quote from Afro-futurist pioneer Sun Ra and uses archive footage and filmed dance performances to both tell the story of black resistance and find new modes of expressing these politics on screen.

Meanwhile, her collaborations with US jazz musician Kamasi Washington reveal Nkiru’s sensitivity to the interplay between sound, image and idea. “Hub-Tones” is as astonishing video: consisting of a nine-minute single shot, the footage shows a woman in sparkling traditional garments dancing with her eyes closed in rapture to music that flits in and out of rhythm with the seething jazz beneath it, prompting searching questions about roots, heritage, belonging and dislocation in contemporary society.

Although the event was, for many audience members, a first taste of Nkiru’s work, the filmmaker pointed out that she has spent much time in Johannesburg, one of “her favourite cities in the world.”

Nkiru began her keynote address by explaining that, in her view, her work is part of a global movement – a “new diasporic black renaissance” – that is seeking to subvert and reinvent tired, stereotypical concepts of Africa (and of blackness, more generally).

According to Nkiru, “artists who fall into this movement are taking up space and reshaping contemporary images of blackness within art, film and culture like never seen before,” and she was quick to foreground the continent of Africa in this process of re-imagining.

“Anyone who meets me quickly realises Africa is the holder and the key to my heart. It is my constant – and in my view, central to any understanding or exploration of the world must include Africa. This continent is all that was past, and it contains the present and what can be possible in the future. The most diverse place on the planet, Africa has to be central to any conversation on art, culture, film, politics, the environment and all other forms of progression.”

Quoting the academic Margot Natalie Crawford, Nkiru explained that black artists are moving beyond “mere rage” and are “immigrating into self, family and nationhood – and celebrating the process. We are at such a transitional time globally, and with any great transition in history comes the introduction of a more focused, unified voice [and process of] art-making. The general conversation echoing throughout the world is that we all want change and are finally willing to do the work to see that change that we want to happen. The New Black Renaissance sums up just this.”

Reflecting on her unique style of filmmaking, Nkiru commented: “It is my duty to ask questions and encourage my audience to do so, too. I sometimes refer to myself as an archaeologist: a cosmic archaeologist. I’m constantly searching, excavating those lost codes to get us back closer to ourselves.

In her view, as a contemporary filmmaker with her roots in Africa, she occupies a similar space to that of the griot, memorably defined by Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambetey as “a messenger of one’s time, a visionary and the creator of the future.”

Expanding on this point during the keynote, Nkiru stressed that “we have now the choice more than ever before, to envision and create the future that we want to see. After so long spent not seeing the images that are so familiar in our day-to-day life projected within the media, we are now instead exercising the often under-valued importance of imagination, rejecting what we are told we should be and instead choosing to explore what we could be. The people truly hold the power and now is a time everyone is expressing and exploring that.”

After taking some questions from the audience, and expanding on her sources of inspiration and her legal and academic background, Nkiru left the stage with a probing question for everyone in attendance.

“I invite you all to keep in mind the ideas and thoughts I spoken about here when awarding, commissioning, championing and creating new work. Are your choices tapping into our greater global concerns, and are they getting us closer to where we all collectively want to be?”

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