An Ecstatic Experience (2015). Courtesy Ja'Tovia Gary

“Flesh to Spirit: Materiality and Abstraction in Black Experimental Film,” a program of 12 short films screening at the Block Cinema at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art on Friday, March 4, at 7 PM, engages what it means to be a Black person—a joyful person, an oppressed person, an exploited person, a person once bought and sold as goods, a person that’s so much more than its corporeal form—in ways both nimbly tactile and equivocally abstruse as only art can be, specifically vis-à-vis experimental film and video.

In conversation with Roy DeCarava’s 1960 photograph Face out of Focus, Paige Taul’s After DeCarava (2018) explores physical abstraction with tender and provocative discernment. The abstraction of the face in Taul’s film, like DeCarava’s photograph, is beautiful but unrecognizable; it’s a divine image lacking an identity, yet also a face protected by Taul’s lens, rejecting exploitation by way of reverie. (The Chicago-based filmmaker will appear in person for a post-screening discussion and Q&A.)

Edward Owens’s Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966) is, like Taul’s film, entirely silent, welcoming the sway of contemplation. Owens, who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and made the film while living here, focuses on his mother, Mildered, with footage of her superimposed upon images of the sort of luxury to which she was not privileged. Still, her presence emits another kind of majesty, one inborn and drawn out by the artist. Alima Lee’s Flesh to Spirit (2019), from which the program takes its name, utilizes video to similar effect, evincing the ways a body is more than what it seems through expressive associations and fragmentation.

L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Barbara McCullough’s Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite Of Purification (1979) and Ayanna Dozier’s Maman Brigitte (2021) explore the phenomena of bodies producing fluid and noise, respectively. In Water Ritual #1, a Black woman walks among a setting that might appear to be located in a developing country but is actually the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, the chosen spot having been cleared for the construction of a freeway. When she squats, nude, to urinate, the ability of a body to imply a locale becomes that same body ritualistically cleansing the space that’s betrayed it through gentrification. Where McCullough’s film is silent, Dozier’s is the product of its soundtrack, composed of sounds of people spitting, vomiting, and other such functions. Evoking the Haitian Vodou figure Maman Brigitte, Dozier transforms these banal intonations into the stuff of ceremony.

“Flesh to Spirit: Materiality and Abstraction in Black Experimental Film”
Friday, March 4, 7 PM; The Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. Free and open to all; RSVP here.

Through collages of already existing materials, from newspaper ads to scenes from popular media, ariella tai’s cavity (2019) and Cauleen Smith’s Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) probe the manipulation of iconography to narrative effect and how such images can be re-manipulated to tell a truer, more accurate story. A faux revenge narrative emerges in cavity; footage of Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on the show Scandal, for instance, is deliriously separated from its origin and remade into something less scandalous and more vengeful. Smith similarly appropriates images to convey a story other than the one initially intended, though more to exemplify how the person telling the story can impact its meaning more than the content itself. The monotony of the white male narrator’s voice is contrasted by the expressive timbre of the second narrator, presumably a Black woman. 

Robert Banks’s MPG: Motion Picture Genocide (1997) considers the history of African American characters being murdered in film. Rough-hewn animation complements the ways in which the killing of Black people onscreen is often two-dimensionalized, the horrors experienced by Black people trivialized for cheap thrills and escapism.

Likewise, Christopher Harris’s Reckless Eyeballing (2004) takes its name from a Jim Crow-era law under which a Black man could be punished for merely looking at a white woman. Harris uses footage of Pam Grier and images of Angela Davis in a way that connects the exploitation of the two women by oppressive apparatuses. The aesthetically bold black-and-white style—reminiscent of newspapers, silent films, and wanted posters—emphasizes the culture of objectification within which these and other Black women exist. (Harris will also appear in person at this screening and at a Thursday night screening titled “Environments of Struggle,” with artist and filmmaker Crystal Z. Campbell, who’s giving a solo artist talk on Wednesday). 

The moving image is often considered as a means to convey the ecstatic experience. In her aptly titled video An Ecstatic Experience (2015), Ja’Tovia Gary uses media and archival footage, the images of which are modified with almost playful lacerations, both to analyze and excavate Black joy in its myriad formations. Footage of actress Ruby Dee portraying an enslaved woman recounting the story of her mother breaking out in ecstatic prayer while working on a plantation is likewise haunting and hopeful. 

Haunting could be used to describe Ulysses Jenkins’s 2006 video Planet X, wherein the myth of a planet colliding with Earth is connected to the events of Hurricane Katrina. News footage and the otherworldly sagacity of Sun Ra create a daunting, almost War of the Worlds-like fiction that has the propensity to become a reality. Where Gary interprets a form of Black joy, Jenkins scrutinizes the meaning of Black fear, likening an imagined catastrophe with a very real one. 

Harris’s 28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark) (2009) stands out among the program, as it depicts images of stars, the shape, cut out from unknown materials and rendered in various modes of abstraction. It’s said about the film that it “approximates a small child’s fantasy world in the dark.” Ultimately ending on a note of hope, this sublime deviation suggests the ability of spirit to transcend flesh, for Black bodies to become appreciated as Black lives just as the cut-out stars come to resemble the brilliant night sky.

The works in this program will be exhibited in a variety of formats (16-millimeter, 35-millimeter, and analog and digital video); all events at the Block Cinema are free to attend.