A Black woman sits at a blue table, appearing to look at documents. She is seen through an open door in low light.
Still from the documentary Beneath The Surface by cai thomas Credit: Courtesy SSCAC

“Black Light Cinema Project” opened July 7 at the South Side Community Art Center with a focus on belonging, home, archival materials, and the self. The topic of identity saturates both galleries, although with different content, allowing them to juxtapose one another while working in unison. 

The Center’s 1893 mansion, a former home in the historic neighborhood of Bronzeville, is the oldest African-American art center in the U.S. The stairs creak and the smell of wood is comforting, creating an easy nostalgia. This isn’t a white-box gallery; the entire ambience of the space cradles and holds visitors—it’s a physical place that feels natural and inviting. 

Curated by SSCAC exhibitions manager and curator Lola Ayisha Ogbara, the cinematic exhibition shows six short films by Jada-Amina, Cameron Granger, zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o’neal (SSCAC’s programs and public engagement manager), Paige Taul, and cai thomas.

In a five-minute documentary entitled Beneath The Surface, cai thomas looks at Trina Reynolds-Tyler, the data director at the Invisible Institute, and her work on gender-based police violence in Chicago. The film shows shots of protests and research, while Reynolds-Tyler discusses feelings of isolation, narrative justice, and how she’s aiming to uncover and expose the data and the truth behind these stories. 

In this black and white still, a car is parked in a driveway in a row of identical car garages, as on a suburban street.
In her work, Paige Taul often collaborates with her family members, including in this black-and-white film, 71.
Courtesy of SSCAC

We see a journalist and activist researching, discussing statistics and footage of protests. We see the work that goes into protecting the Black community from the Chicago Police Department and we see the hope for a better, safer future for marginalized people. The documentary-style film creates a seamless yet pronounced difference between the more experimental works in the show. 

Following thomas’s piece is Jada-Amina’s Incantation: Jarais, an approximately seven-minute film that opens with an individual stretching in an empty studio. A blue hue covers the film as older images flash across the screen. The timestamp reads “1996.” The VHS-esque style of the archival footage bleeds through modern-day images of the dancer. Then, the words “children are blessed” are remixed with the moves of the individual. Destiny’s Child shows up on the screen as the word, “blessed” repeats over and over again. 

Jada-Amina is a south side-born and -based artist. Their work focuses on ancestral technology and collage work using sound and video. Here, we see Jada-Amina’s use of fragmenting; they transpose and overlap cultural images and personal archives alongside a sound portrait that serves as a bow to tie the entire film together. 

“When I was a child I was punished. Blessed child. I love you, mama,” repeats as the dancer moves across the screen. 

In this triptych, the left screen is black with white text reading: We're still your light in the dark. Please be safe. The center frame shows a red-hued room, with a dresser top full of framed family photos. The right from shows a close up of a body of water, overlaid with the same text from the left frame.
Still from Cameron Granger’s Heavy as Heaven
Courtesy of SSCAC

The remixing of visuals between modern-day and the early 90s and the addition of gospel sound and voices creates a collage of identity and personhood. The work is powerful, both elevating the main character and making the viewer wonder about the full story. 

In visual contrast, a black-and-white, 19-minute film by ​Paige Taul, 71, looks at the softness and sensibilities of Black middle-class life. Taul has been working with film for almost seven years. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, she says at one point another Black student told her she wasn’t Black. “I am Black, but within that statement, there were qualifiers that I was being measured by,” she says. 

In 71, Jessica Taul and Pamela Patterson, Taul’s mother and aunt, discuss class and other qualifiers for which they are measured or which they themselves measure. Taul’s visualization of those qualifiers aims to answer or bring up certain questions. For example, “What are the cultural references, clothes, and beliefs that make someone Black?” she says. “And how am I able to recognize these signifiers of Blackness in myself and in others?”

Taul explains, “A lot of where the ability to discern these signifiers comes from [is] personal and popular culture. I’m definitely more interested in exploring personal culture. Asking questions is how I start most of my films: How do my family members, friends, and community members influence and shape their and my expression of Blackness? And from there, being careful to not generalize any one person’s experience.”

Taul often collaborates with her family members—her aunt and mother appear frequently in her films—and she thinks about the relationship with them as a “formation of identity through the formation of small and large-scale communities.” She considers both her family and other artists to be part of her community. “It’s through knowing them that I continue to build and understand an identity,” she says. 

“My family members are interesting people! As a nonfiction filmmaker, I don’t have to imagine their lives,” Taul continues. “Their opinions, tastes, and lived experiences are informed by the very culture and history I’m looking to explore.”

We see this throughout the exhibition, from each film to the next. The filmmakers are creating works of people, places, songs, feelings that are right in front of them. We see family, connection, and a weaving of culture that is thoughtful and upfront. The show’s careful curation takes viewers on a journey of joy, heartbreak, and connection through film. Each sequence presents the viewer with a different story and a new set of characters. 

Although each short film is vastly unique, both in style and context, they all cohesively collaborate to paint a picture of the Black narrative. 

“Black Light Cinema Project” 
Through 9/23: Wed-Sat noon-4 PM, South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan, sscartcenter.org/event/black-light-cinema-project-and-homecoming-black-craft-design-in-chicago

related stories

Out at the Center

They were there. No fuss, no ballyhoo, but queer artists have been a significant part of Bronzeville’s South Side Community Art Center since its founding in 1940. You might or might not see it in the art. That’s the main takeaway from “EMERGENCE: Intersections at the Center,” on exhibit at SSCAC through July 2. “EMERGENCE:…

A meditation on the flow of being

Lake Michigan has served as my compass since I moved to Chicago. I will never forget an old coworker telling me to remember “the lake is always east!” when I described how lost I’d get trying to find my way around the city. It took a few years for it to click, but once I…