Black Aesthetic Strategy: Images that Move | Rhea Storr | Wednesday, 13.10.2021


Construction is not a precise term for a Black Aesthetic Strategy. As I wish to define it here, it simply refers to the way that an image is made. It is not to be confused with constructivism as philosophical theory (although construction as I am defining it, does similarly concern the way that we gather and represent knowledge). Neither should construction as a Black Aesthetic Strategy be confused with constructivism as a twentieth century art movement, which favours the material of industry and abstraction. I am concerned with those Black Aesthetic Strategies which deliberately trouble construction through the fabrication of their own language, rather than wholly relying on dominant (read Western) constructions of language as a means of expression. I will consider filmic constructions which reside at the intersection of imaginative life and lived reality as a way of sharing knowledge and summoning community.
A cursory (and frankly simplistic) reading of Sylvia Wynter will help outline why language specific to a Black Aesthetic Strategy is important. For Wynter, Western bourgeois man has claimed voice for all humanity. In order to reject a construction of the human which universalises the Western gaze and characterises the economically poor Black subject as inferior, Wynter proposes a means of knowledge production which operates otherwise. In ‘Africa, the West and the Analogy of Culture: The Cinematic Text After Man’, Wynter proposes that ‘the challenge to be met by the black African, and indeed black diasporic, cinema for the twenty-first century will be that of deconstructing the present conception of the human, Man,… to deconstruct with both, the order of consciousness and mode of the aesthetic to which this conception leads…’ 1Sylvia Wynter, ‘Africa, the West and the Analogy of Culture: The Cinematic Text after Man’ in Symbolic Narratives/ African Cinema Audiences, Theory and the Moving Image, ed. June Givanni (London: BFI Publishing, 2000), 25–76, here 26. The moving image is a form of racialised knowledge production, birthed out of industrial advances. Wynter calls for an aesthetic mode which might accurately represent a Black subject rather than chart a history of evolution of which Western man is the pinnacle.
Two films are discussed in this final blog post – T (2019) by Keisha Rae Witherspoon and One Day Go Be One Day (2019) by Akinola Davies Jr. They are both dictated by content and describe community, either in T’s masterful costume design as collective celebration to the fallen, or in the description of Fela Kuti’s radical community Kalakata in One Day. My focus is also on the language of the films; camera movements, image effects and use of sound. They employ both fictive and documentary elements. These aesthetic modes allow the social and creative constructions in T and One Day to move, politically and emotionally.
A Black guy and a white guy walk into a bar. The Black guy says to the white guy:
‘Hey, did you know there’s scientific proof that matter at its most finite acts as waves of potential?’

And the white guy says:
‘Yes, the inner reality creates the outer form.’

…There’s no punchline bitch!

-T, Keisha Rae Witherspoon
T follows three protagonists as they honour their dead. Each creates a costume or printed T-shirt design to wear to the ‘T’ ball, a dancing, celebrating, screaming and mourning space. Although not explicitly stated, T has a present day air and resonates as a tribute to those Black lives unjustly killed, whether by human hand or the ravages of climate change which disproportionately affect people of colour. (T finished shooting shortly before Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017). The film creates a compelling and convincing fantasy, a familiar no-time which draws from the practice of printing a loved one’s face on a T-shirt and a host of other Black funereal traditions which embrace the celebration of life as much as a mourning of death.
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Keisha Rae Witherspoon, T, 2019, film still, courtesy of the filmmaker
I want to focus on the first of the three protagonists, ‘Dimples’, who creates a costume made from the silvery slivers of potato chip packets in tribute to her son, Jasper. Through Dimples, we get a sense of the many levels on which fabrications move us in the film. Dimples shows us Jasper’s paintings and the tender memories which they hold, his capacity to paint and her capacity to sew, gentle moments which flow forth with unspoken emotion. She is heavily adorned with jewellery and an elaborate blue apron which she has sewn herself. The room, adorned with Jasper’s paintings, is a fabrication which simultaneously imagines what could have been and remembers what was, just as the film itself is a slurry of make-believe constructed from the reality of Black mourning.
The costumes therefore in T are a construction that allow grief to find language. The interior which Dimples beckons us into explodes in a language appropriate only to the creativity and particularity of Jasper’s life, a flag of his own creation, his ‘mask’ phase and his love of potato chips. Treating Black lives as subjects with particular wants, desires and ways of moving through the world is a resistance and a refusal of the treatment of Black bodies as property, as objects. Witherspoon asks of Black grief, ‘Is it a cape or perhaps a skin – a shroud of our loved ones’ DNA that might travel with us, warm and protect us?’ Subjecthood is further underscored when the costumes become animated by their makers with the intention to hold their loved ones close, literally wearing them on their chest or embodying their qualities in the climax of the film which is the ball. ‘Create or Die’ says a painting behind Dimples as she cuts her costume.
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Keisha Rae Witherspoon, T, 2019, film still, courtesy of the filmmaker
Dimples leads us through an interior space to the threshold of Jasper’s shrine-bedroom, an assortment of oddities; trophies, a hat, shutters painted like the sky. There is a Black man who sits motionless under fairy lights, a mannequin for all intents and purposes who never acknowledges the camera. Dimples permits the camera to wait only at the door whilst she smokes a cigarette in the shrine, an unorthodox thurible. Elsewhere, Ash, another of the protagonists, changes his mind during the recording and refuses to talk to camera. This refusal, or rejection of the camera, shows that constructions set boundaries which might serve to protect the consumption of Black life (and death). As an aesthetic strategy the camera – and by extension the viewer – is bounded. The obedience of the camera in adhering to these boundaries educates the viewer that some aspects of Black life should not be captured out of an acknowledgement of their rampant consumption as objects for viewing. T is a fiction film shot like a documentary, which draws from research into Black ritual. Mourning is enacted in T as a fictive document but no specific real-life mourner is captured, a boundary which conveys as much as it protects. Witherspoon’s intention with this real-life inspired fiction is ‘to seduce the mind with new ideas and possibilities we might download into our cells.’ The inner reality creates the outer form.
Akinola Davies Jr., One Day Go Be One Day, 2019
One Day Go Be One Day by Akinola Davies Jr. (aka Crack Stevens) is an exploration of the life and character of Fela Kuti, the visionary Nigerian father of Afrobeat. Like T the film reflects on grief tied to an (ins)urgent artistic production, a way of living and working which undermined Nigerian authority. It is through language that Kuti criticised the Nigerian government, through the newspaper his activist political group and printing press ‘The Young African Pioneers’ produced and the lyrics of his music such as his 1977 album Zombie. Through an audio exploration of those close to Kuti One Day describes the chaotic vibrancy of Kalakuta, the community-cum-recording studio Kuti cultivated. Eventually Kalakuta was raided by one thousand soldiers of the Nigerian Army, who in the midst of the raid threw Kuti’s mother out of the window. His retort was the track Sorrow, Tears and Blood. Whereas T creates clear boundaries for our engagement, One Day is less clear in its aesthetic boundaries and content as a strategy against capture of Black life. In fact Kuti is described as being unstoppable after being badly beaten and taken to hospital – a refusal of boundary against oppressive force. Later that day, Kuti played at his club, Afrika Shrine (another nod to artistic production and the spiritual).
What aesthetic constructions are used by Davies Jr. to honour the spoken memories of Fela Kuti? One Day privileges sound over image, with help from Nigerian musician Obongjayar. The film centres the voice in relation to music, voices which also appear as text on screen, suggesting the film might be there to educate those who enjoy only Kuti’s music but not his politics or spirituality – ‘This love of Fela is only skin deep’. 2Quote from One Day Go Be One Day. The images of dance and ritual which accompany the audio interviews are blurred like fever dreams emerging out of almost black frames. By embracing the poetic, Davies Jr. mimics the creative devices and lyrical mastery used by Kuti. The dancers communicate a felt energy and activism in contrast to the more informational spoken remembrances.
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Akinola Davies Jr., One Day Go Be One Day, 2019, film still
Construction is also political; it builds community, which in turn fabricates culture. Such cultures can be both organised and precarious. Consider the fact that Kuti’s printing press – literally a machine to copy and distribute ideas – was so valuable that it was sought after by the Nigerian authorities for destruction. Or the nature of the T ball as a gathering of ideas, of fashions, of skins, and capes (to quote Witherspoon). Or that ball culture is a space of expression by and for an LGBTQ+ community. Just as Dimples refuses our entrance to the bedroom in T, One Day shows us only fabricated images in relation to Fela Kuti. Davies Jr. rejects a reconstruction of the communities in One Day – Kalakuta and the Afrika Shrine – in favour of their narration. These decisions reconfigure the possibilities of a Black Aesthetic in the absence of an adequate documentary language. The imaginative creates an abundant refusal through colour, costume, masquerade and poetry, overflowing with care, yet bounded and aloof for its own protection. The construction and circulation of an imaginative image, what it creates in its wake, its fabrication rippling outwards beyond itself, can gather community, provide comfort and be a political threat.
What I have attempted to outline in this blog series is a New Black Aesthetic which responds to a contemporary moment of image-making. These strategies are useful but are not the entirety – they are as numerous as understandings of what ‘Blackness’ could be and more besides. They are contradictory, vulnerable, they have agency. But Black Aesthetic Strategies need to be used with the right intention, by or for Black people.
To quote Ash in T: ‘What y’all here for anyway? What y’all really wanna see?’