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Personal Ethnographies: Ephraim Asili's The Diaspora Suite

  • Maysles Cinema 343 Lenox Avenue New York, NY, 10027 United States (map)
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Saturday, May 18, 7 PM

Developed film by film over the course of seven years, Ephraim Asili’s The Diaspora Suite charts a sprawling course across time and space as it oscillates between post-slavery America and post-colonial Africa. Shot observationally in Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Jamaica, as well as in historical black communities in Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia, this cycle of five short films at once illuminates the shared experience of racial oppression that has forged a pan-African consciousness, and the fragility of that consciousness in the face of a global economic system that governs all means of exchange. Each episode of Asili’s Suite establishes its own system of exchange, a montage of associations, in order to suggest the buried kinships or complex ironies existing between images from far flung points of the world. In Many Thousands Gone, a scene of dancers on 125th Street in Harlem gives way to a rhyming scene of young men performing backflips in Salvador, Brazil. In Kindah, a vacated apartment in Hudson, NY counterpoints a raucous communal celebration in Accompong, Jamaica. In both instances, these montage couplets feel discovered within, rather than imposed upon, the filmed material, as Asili weaves a form to liberate his images from their assigned places in a transnational order.

Ephraim Asili will present and discuss The Diaspora Suite.

Forged Ways
2011, 15min.
Photographed on location in Harlem and various locations throughout Ethiopia, the film shifts between the first person account of a filmmaker, the third person experience of a man navigating the streets of Harlem, and day-to-day life in the cities and villages of Ethiopia.

American Hunger
2013, 19min.
Oscillating between a street festival in Philadelphia, the slave forts and capital city of Ghana, and the New Jersey shore, American Hungerexplores the relationship between personal experience and collective histories. American fantasies confront African realities. African realities confront America fantasies. African fantasies confront American realities. American realities confront African fantasies…

Many Thousands Gone
2015, 8min.
Filmed on location in Salvador, Brazil (the last city in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery) and Harlem, New York (an international stronghold of the African diaspora), Many Thousands Gone draws parallels between a summer afternoon on the streets of the two cities. A silent version of the film was given to jazz multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee to use as an interpretive score. The final film is the combination of the images and McPhee’s real time “light reading” of the score.

Kindah
2016, 12min.
The fourth film in an ongoing series of 16mm films exploring Asili’s relationship to the African diaspora, this one was shot in Hudson, NY and Accompong, Jamaica. Accompong was founded in 1739 after rebel slaves and their descendants fought a protracted war with the British, leading to the establishment of a treaty between the two sides. Cudjoe, a leader of the Maroons, is said to have united the Maroons in their fight for autonomy under the Kindah Tree—a large, ancient mango tree that is still standing. The tree symbolizes the kinship of the community on its common land.

Fluid Frontiers
2017, 23min.
The fifth and final film in an ongoing series exploring Asili’s personal relationship to the African diaspora. Shot along the Detroit River border region, Fluid Frontiers explores the relationship between concepts of resistance and liberation exemplified by the Underground Railroad (the Detroit River being a major terminal point), and more modern resistance and liberation movements represented by Dudley Randall’s Detroit-based Broadside Press, as well as the installation, sculptural, and performance works of local Detroit artists.

This screening is generously supported by Video Data Bank 
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Video Data Bank.

This program is part of:

The American Experiment (1969-2019)

Programmed by Emily Apter, Edo Choi, Jessica Green, and Annie Horner

On 16mm, video and DCP

Winter 2019-Winter 2020

Experimental film in the United States has always been about the search for voice and true expression, and we’ve seen the diversity of these voices build over the last half-century. The so-called New American Cinema of the 1960s, which emerged largely in response to censorship in the Hollywood Studio system, grew into, more broadly, into an international cinema of experimentalism. These films looked inward and outward, toward something porous: what constitutes Americanness, who is represented within American power structures, and what is the the place of the American project of democracy in a globalizing world? With a multitude of identities at the forefront, these filmmakers ask, is America by and for white people, or has it always been an intersection of diverse origins? Or both?

In post-war America there were three conditions out of which the experimental film movement arose: 1) Advances in camera technology and an abundance of cheap 16mm film stock left over from the military, which to an increase of/continued interaction between experimental films and home movies. 2) A desire to explore psychological themes and aesthetic forms precluded by Hollywood’s broad commercial appeal and production code 3) An equally strong desire to interrogate the exteriors and interiors of modern American life (informed by psychoanalysis and advertising) as it had been codified during the period post-war ascension.

The 60s and 70s marked an intersection between cinema and the broader struggle for civil rights, queer rights, anti-imperialism, and feminism. As these movements expanded, so did the experimental film movement. The possibility of a more sustainable experimental film economy included intersections between film and performance art.

In the 80s and 90s the notion of expanded cinema exploded, and experimental film continued merging with other art practices like mixed media. Futurism was explored, and marginalized voices evoked. Experimental film gained support by museums, galleries, and art institutions.

In the 21st century, the experimental movement has reflected filmmakers who continue complicating notions of identity. As technology continues to evolve, it informs and expands the possibilities of cinema and, in turn, the representations of self. Many contemporary experimental films emerge out of a documentary paradigm, as there are more ways than ever to document both the outside world and the self. These films retain elements of nonfiction storytelling by documenting the outside world, the self, and their own making. This is the rich terrain The American Experiment will explore.

1.) The Truth is Out There
(Winter 2019, Feb 7th-8th, 16th-17th)

Documentary and experimental film have been intermingling since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North in 1922, which is before the word “documentary” was coined by the Scottish documentary filmmaker, John Grierson in 1935. If documentary is more concerned with reality than fantasy and experimental film is more concerned with feeling than fact, mash-ups of these forms embody radical aesthetics. Today’s experimental non-fiction film reckons with the filmmaker’s personal experience, offering a non-traditional lens to a non-traditional American experience.

2.) Personal Ethnographies
(May 2019-June 2019)

These films represent the various modes of personal expression that woman, indigenous, immigrant, African American, and LGBTQ artists have developed within and against the American avant-garde tradition. Personal Ethnographies explores films and makers traversing the borders between the personal and the political, the self and the body, the imagined and the “real” America.

3.) The Futurism Is Ours
(Fall 2019, TBA)

The Futurism is Ours features Afro- and feminist-futurist experimental films that explore present day dilemmas, envision the future, and re-examine the past. Together, these films expand notions of memory and selfhood through cultures of the African diaspora, queerness, science fiction, historical trauma, and collective remembering. Beginning in the late 20th century and moving into the present day, The Futurism is Ours is a program of re-imaginings--of utopias and dystopias, of futurist possibilities for self, society, and cinema.

4.) The Big Crossover @ URL
(Winter 2020, TBA)

The Big Crossover @ URL examines the place of experimental film within the ecosystems of art making, stardom, currency, and the Art Economy, as well as the mainstream content economy and ideas pipeline. This section is a meditation on the new, elusive social capital experimental filmmakers sometimes garner and sometimes reject in the Internet era. Utilizing both physical and screen space we explore the role of internet-mediated representations of marginalized people in digital hierarchies of exposure, profit and expectation. Through this lens we seek to ask: how do, and how can, marginalized people claim ownership and representation of their identities online?

This series is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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Earlier Event: May 17
Personal Ethnographies: Sky Hopinka