Black Aesthetic Strategy: Images that Move | Rhea Storr | Dienstag, 20.07.2021


Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake describes redaction as ‘seeing and reading otherwise; toward reading and seeing something in excess of what is caught in the frame’. 1Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016, 117. Sharpe describes Black redaction as ‘wake work’ caught in the aftermath of the slave ship, intrinsic to the histories of transatlantic chattel slavery. 2Ibid, 13. The wake is an ode to Black life in the face of Black death. I’m struck by Sharpe’s terminology and the use of ‘frame’ to describe the field of vision, implicating image-capturing technologies directly with wake work. Black redaction can be thought of as a shielding of information from oppressive forces which seek to control Black lives. It is offered as a form of resistance, a counter movement to colonial legacies. These colonial legacies have themselves erased histories, familial bonds and traditions through the violent transportation of Black lives. The fact of Blackness therefore is itself already an enforced redaction.
My focus here is on who enforces redaction and what powers act upon the redacted image to influence its movements. A retrospective redaction in response to oppressive power can never fully see or read otherwise. (‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’). I mean to suggest that we should not only consider how images are seen or read but how they are made. A redaction at the point of production is not in the wake but pre-empts it’s inevitable invocation. It performs an intervention before the image is seen or read, claiming the image of Black life in and for itself.
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Tariku Shiferaw, As I Am (H.E.R), 2018, spray paint, iridescent film, mylar, vinyl, 40” x 30”
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Adam Pendleton, Untitled, 2018, silkscreen ink on Mylar, 137.95 × 107.47 x 4.45 cm. Installation view of “Liam Gillick Adam Pendleton / Adam Pendleton Liam Gillick” at Eva Presenhuber, New York, 2018
Before I posit a series of strategies for Black filmmakers, I would like to consider the field in which redaction exists through painting and early experimental filmmaking. Redaction can be thought of as a subtype of abstraction, a distillation of the image to its salient parts. There are many contemporary examples of two-dimensional Black Abstract works which perform a redaction: Glenn Ligon’s Come Out (2014–15) series, Arthur Jafa’s Black Flag (2017), Tariku Shiferaw’s As I Am (H.E.R.) (2018) and Adam Pendleton’s Untitled (2018), to name but a few. They present a visuality counter to the universal or pure forms that modernist abstraction yearned for, asserting the subjectivity of Black life and rejecting a supposed objectivity or essence. Black Abstraction pays particular attention to the aesthetic qualities of the image but does not focus solely on material for its own sake. It instead destabilises the readability of an image and rejects clarity; a refusal with attitude. The tendency towards painterly abstraction had a marked influence on early twentieth century experimental film. What resulted was an attention to form, colour, light, line and abstraction in the work of non-Black filmmakers such as László Moholy-Nagy, Viking Eggeling or Hans Richter. Can Black Experimental Cinema speak back to early abstract cinematic experiments by appropriating their language to comment on Black life? In the same way that a painterly Black Abstraction might be deemed otherwise to modernist abstraction?
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Hans Richter, Rhythmus 21, 1921, film still
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Viking Eggeling, Diagonal Symphony, 1921, film still
For clarity, I have defined Black Experimental Cinema as a film which conveys a Black experience, is made by a Black eye and/or ear and seeks a mode of representation counter to professionalised modes of cinema production. In other words a way of thinking otherwise. There will also be works discussed in the coming weeks which do not adhere to this definition but have aesthetic qualities which might prove useful for Black Experimental Filmmakers. Here I am going to make two comparisons between films which use similar aesthetic devices despite their variation in context and content.
Consider two frames: Raoul Peck’s Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990) and Juliana Kasumu’s What Does the Water Taste Like? (2019). Peck and Kasumu’s redactions are perhaps visually the most severe, presenting us only with a black screen. In each film a voice-over and accompanying subtitling is the only information available. Peck’s Lumumba reads (in translation): ‘The images have been lost…The voice still remains’, whilst Kasumu’s What Does the Water Taste Like? reads, ‘ This is your fault, you’re laughing?’ Both texts reference voice either as an alternative form of archiving or an utterance aside from language (in this case a laugh). The redaction of image pulls our focus to sound, drawing attention to the voice as subject.
Lumumba tells the history and politics of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose assassination, reportedly under the direction of Belgian command, came shortly after his appointment. Peck details his migration from Haiti to the DRC (then Zaire) as a boy. His parents migrated as part of a drive to fill the employment gap produced by the withdrawal of Belgium. Peck says of his childhood circumstance: ‘We were Black but we were white. We were different.’ Lumumba, then, is also about navigation. The history of the DRC is recounted to Peck by his mother who was secretary to the Mayor of Leopoldville (present-day Kinshasa). We see footage shot by Peck’s father. However, it is Peck’s voice which guides us through Lumumba’s history in a redaction created by filtering through many different voices. We encounter subjectivity, Peck imaging in the ways which his body allows him to move. We see images of the Brussels airport Peck is travelling through, his plans to travel to the DRC derailed in fear for his own safety. 3 For an in depth discussion of Lumumba: Death of A Prophet, see Laura U. Marks, The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000). By exposing the redaction which has been forced upon him, seemingly by the Zaire secret service, Peck makes clear the mechanisms and politics which surround Lumumba’s image in the mundanity of an airport.
Conversely, What Does the Water Taste Like? presents us with a conversation between Kasumu and her mother. Kasumu is learning the pronunciation of a Yoruba phrase. The black screen in this instance focuses our attention solely on language and its sounding. It’s a warm conversation, patient and intimate; a conversation that could only be had by these particular voices in relation. The conversation shows the complexities of navigating a British-Nigerian identity, where language is used as both a connection to heritage and a racial signifier. Kasumu also recalls using only one of her forenames in school as a way to avoid the mispronunciation of her other forename, ‘Tosin’, reserved only for close family. It is important that redaction for the purposes of Black Aesthetic Strategy insists on subjectivity, given especially that historically Black lives have been considered property. Redaction here is partial, a withdrawal not as standardisation but a confirmation of subjectivity, either an emotional closeness or distance. The absent image but present voice leaves space for care, community and the imaginative in the absence of information.
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Ja’Tovia Gary, Giverny I (Négresse Impériale), 2017, film still
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Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Spit on the Broom, 2019, film still
Consider now these two frames: Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017) by Ja’Tovia Gary and Spit on the Broom (2019) by Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. Both use layering rather than absence as a means of redaction. Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) is the precursor to Gary’s The Giverny Document (2019), a film in which Black women are interviewed in Harlem about whether they feel safe in their bodies. Contrasted with these interviews is Gary herself in Giverny at the Monet Gardens, the site of Monet’s Water Lily paintings. Gary’s body in Giverny acts as a refutation of impressionist painting which depicts white women in gardens (Monet in particular). The Giverny Document also incorporates archive footage – Nina Simone performs Feelings and we see the heartbreaking Facebook live footage of Diamond ‘Lavish’ Reynolds. Her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by Minnesota Police after being pulled over for a broken taillight. I want to suggest that Gary is using the violence of these horizontal abstract interruptions to rewrite a narrative of experimental filmmaking and to address the brutality of erasure more generally. Gary asserts direct or cameraless filmmaking techniques (film which is directly drawn or painted onto) for a reworking of Black histories otherwise. At times Gary’s body is obscured by the layering of frames, a camouflage which could also suggest a strategic concealment rather than an erasure, an invisibility needed by Black bodies as a form of protection.
Hunt-Ehrlich’s use of concealment is less definitive in the way that it treats the body, using the veil as a restricted but again protective viewpoint. The veil does not prevent us from looking out onto the outside but positions us in the perspective of the subject. Redaction with partiality performs a concealment in the face of imaging technology; the veiled subject is the recipient which hides from the camera’s gaze. This opening scene is reminiscent of a hidden mother portrait. This form of portraiture was popular with Victorians and was used to keep very young children still over longer exposures whilst the mother was concealed by cloth, an absent presence. There is an odd mixture of care and control to hidden mother portraits. The function of the veil here – seeing out but not in – is indicative of the perspective of the film as a whole. Spit on the Broom documents the United Order of Tents, a secret women’s organisation founded in Virginia, USA, in 1867 and run mainly by Black women. A voice-over reads: ‘The origin of the Order is obscure, or else the reticence of the members has become so fixed, a habit on account of the many efforts that have been made to evade it.’ The film is pieced together using newspaper articles and statements from public records, an insight into the order from the outside. The use of reconstruction and dramatisation also ensures a level of continued secrecy, as if Hunt-Ehrlich is preserving the mother’s cloaked outline and respecting the veil. As Hunt-Ehrlich has stated: ‘How do we tell stories without giving away their power?’ The answer is through redaction.

Through absent presences, restriction of frame, withholding of legibility and re-narration of history, the above comparisons are a useful start to redaction as a Black Aesthetic Strategy. They are not exhaustive but offer a means of traversal and positioning, both for the content of the films – how the subject navigates the world – and the way in which such films might circulate within cinematic or broader histories.