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Erin Christovale: Creating Narratives With Black Experimental Film

Artbound's season seven debut episode explores Afrofuturism and contemporary Black art. Catch the premiere Tuesday, November 17 on KCET and nationwide on Monday, November 23 via Link TV.

Experimentation and expansion are at the heart of Erin Christovale's work. As a curator of film and video, Christovale envisions a post-modern society through the lens of the African diaspora. Rooted in Afrofuturist theory, Christovale utilizes the past as a way to create a future that breaks away from the often oppressive reality of African American life. As a self-proclaimed archivist, her work as a curator seeks to not only continue the legacy of Black creativity, but also bring it to the forefront.

After graduating from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Christovale, who is a first-generation Californian and a descendant of Slidell, Louisiana, collaborated with film programmer Amir George to create "Black Radical Imagination." It is a traveling, short-film screening program that focuses on the aesthetics of Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic that uses science fiction, magical realism, and Afrocentricity to not only comment on the present-day challenges that the diasporic population faces, but also re-envisions a hopeful future. Realizing there was a lack of Afrofuturist films and visual arts being showcased, Christovale and George focused on pushing media-heavy, experimental films. This series of Afrofuturist visual shorts provided a space where African Americans could eschew the common stereotypes shown in film, and carve their own narratives in cinema. Following the success of the series, Christovale and George published "Black Radical Imagination," a collection of essays and notes reflecting their film program.

For the debut episode of Artbound's seventh season airing November 17, we're exploring new expressions of African American art. In a recent interview for our upcoming episode, Christovale spoke with filmmaker Martine Syms about the artistic traditions of Black California, her "Black Radical Imagination" project, and the importance of claiming blackness today.

Still from "The Golden Chain" by Buki Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels, 2013. The work was part of short film program "Black Radical Imagination 2013," curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.
Still from "The Golden Chain" by Buki Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels, 2013. The work was part of short film program "Black Radical Imagination 2013," curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.

On Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism has taken on this kind of expansive life. The term was coined from a Mark Dery essay, which is interesting because he's actually a white man. He was working with scholars like Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun who were thinking about the birth of the digital realm, but were also thinking about the things that we collect from our past -- our archive -- and how we can utilize things from our archive to think of a new future, and break out of the oppressive present. So when they were first talking about that term it was heavily influenced by music, specifically the origins of hip-hop. It was late 1980s, early 1990s when hip-hop was this new thing, and they were really interested [in] how DJ's and producers were using these digital devices like synthesizers and beat machines that weren't necessarily made for them, but using them to remix older Black music and incorporate them into something new. And so that general idea has really taken over and exist[s] in all these creative realms: film, music, fine art. I'd say my updated version of that idea is pulling from the past to create a new future, but specifically utilizing technology and this 'hacking' mentality of taking something that's not yours and using it, and creating something that mirrors your own experience.

Still from "Afronauts" by Cristina De Middel, 2013. The work was part of short film program "Black Radical Imagination 2013," curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.
Still from "Afronauts" by Cristina De Middel, 2013. The work was part of short film program "Black Radical Imagination 2013," curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.

On "Black California" and its artist tradition

Within Black California, there is this history of expansion and experimentation. I think it all has to do with the environment that we exist in, being very close to nature, being in an expansive city like L.A. But mainly thinking about this "great migration" to California and the Black folk who were coming from different parts of the South. [People in] Louisiana, specifically, settled in places like the West Adams District in Los Angeles or various parts of Oakland. The collective psyche that they were holding was that [they] have never been to this place before but were interested in imagining and expanding their minds in search of a new experience. When you go down to L.A., and you think about L.A. Rebellion, which is a group of predominately Black filmmakers in the 1970s who were allowed into UCLA's film school for the first time, they were making work about the places they came from: Watts, Inglewood, Compton, but were doing it in this very lovingly, documentarian-like way. Thinking about some of the artists, like David Hammons and Betye Saar who were making work at the same time but were using found objects from the Watts rebellion and were making these beautiful assemblage sculptures that were dedicated to their communities. So I think that that kind of idea of making something out of nothing has been a centralized Black idea of being in America.

Still from "Crow Requiem" by Cauleen Smith, 2015. The work was part of short film program "the way in which the past haunts the present," curated by Erin Christovale and Jacqueline Stewart.
Still from "Crow Requiem" by Cauleen Smith, 2015. The work was part of short film program "the way in which the past haunts the present," curated by Erin Christovale and Jacqueline Stewart.

On whether there is a "Black aesthetic"

I do think there is a Black aesthetic, but I think it's regional and cultural. So when I speak of Black California, I think the aesthetic really lies in mental expansion, experimentation, and maybe introducing ideas like Afrofuturism. Also, letting go of the Antebellum South and letting go of how strong the racism felt and working towards a future that doesn't necessarily involve being in a constant state of fear. Or, kind of that dark history and heritage that the South holds.

Installation view of exhibition "a/wake in the water: Meditations on Disaster," curated by Erin Christovale.
Installation view of exhibition "a/wake in the water: Meditations on Disaster," curated by Erin Christovale.

On the art collective Native Thinghood

I was in the USC film school and when I graduated, I looked around and realized I was around such beautiful and intellectual friends. Native Thinghood was a collective, that included myself, Simone Andrews, Sundiata Toure, Henoch Moore, Savvy Wood, Kasey Cunningham, Bert Cooper, and A-lan Holt. We started having conversations about Afrofuturism and had round tables and invited people to come in and speak. From there we started throwing events. We had a two art shows and a few film screenings that included early work by Terence Nance, Akosua Adoma Owusu and Kahlil Joseph.

Installation view of exhibition "a/wake in the water: Meditations on Disaster," curated by Erin Christovale.
Installation view of exhibition "a/wake in the water: Meditations on Disaster," curated by Erin Christovale.

On her multimedia film project, "Black Radical Imagination"

"Black Radical Imagination" started in 2012, while doing film programming here in L.A. with Native Thinghood. I was asking myself: Where do I fit in to the independent cinema realm as a young, Black film programmer, being interested in a very niche community of filmmakers? How would I be able to expand that or who would be interested in that? So, my friend Savannah had just moved to Chicago and she was working for Dorchester Projects which is a project by Theaster Gates, who is an artist in Chicago revamping different parts of the Southside and turning it into creative spaces. He created the Black Cinema House, which is a Cinema House that honors older, independent cinema by Black filmmakers, while also exploring more contemporary narratives. So, Amir George was a film programmer there and he was [a] friend of Savvy and Savvy connected us and we just started talking. At the time, I was reading a lot of Afrofuturism texts and I was like: "why don't we make a film program?" I'm looking at all these visual artists and independent filmmakers who are creating this new, interesting work that is very new media-heavy. So we put this film program together that was a collection of short films that we considered to be Afrofuturist films.

It's been three years now and we've just been traveling with this program: Experimental works by filmmakers and visual artists. Each year we have a theme. The first year we were thinking about Afrofuturism, the second year we [were] getting into this idea of Afro-Surrealism, and this year were kind of working more on what it means for the Black body to exist in media, what is put upon it, and what we as Black folk can take to create and tell our own narratives.

Still from "Swimming in Your Skin Again" by Terence Nance, 2015. The work was part of short film program "Black Radical Imagination 2015," curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.
Still from "Swimming in Your Skin Again" by Terence Nance, 2015. The work was part of short film program "Black Radical Imagination 2015," curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.

On the reception of "Black Radical Imagination"

It's turned into a book, it's been programmed all over the U.S. Last year, we presented at a festival in Trinidad. It's been able to expand in this really interesting way. Also it's been a great place for all these creatives to come together and meet each other. People have started working together and collaborate. So it's been really cool as a curator to see this little thing grow into this massive idea that everyone is pulling from. The larger entertainment industry tends to co-opt these narratives and put stereotypes onto Black bodies. This is a space for folks to feel comfortable and experiment with their work.

On the title "Black Radical Imagination"

I will say that a lot of folks have asked us why "Black Radical Imagination," why can't it be "Radical Imagination?" And, understanding that those three words: Black, radical, and imagination are all really powerful. Black folks don't always engage with art spaces because they don't necessarily feel welcome there. And, I'm speaking very generally, but what I learned from the program is that it's sometimes how folks feel. That this experimental nature, this experimental realm is outside of their everyday, and so there's a disconnect there. So, I think the purpose of calling it "Black Radical Imagination" was to make sure that those folks understood that this was for them and that they're welcome in this space.

On claiming blackness in 2015

Claiming blackness in 2015 is important because of the possibilities of the Internet. Black cultural production is at its height right now in the digital realm. I would say that there is something to say about the economic value that isn't coming back to Black folk. But just to look at the span of creativity even considering that Black Twitter is is an entity that people are using that has been defined has been really interesting. I would say that Black folks are really taking over every aspect of social media. Whether it's the video of someone being killed by the police to "Uncle Denzel." I think that this digital landscape is a place where Black folks are really creating these new ideas for themselves. Obviously, I think it's important to note that our president is Black and to see the dissemination of him from folks in America. And how that's escalating with the death of young people like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and how he gets roped into those issues where you see police targeting in on Black bodies. It's important because I feel like it's bringing up this new age of racism. Saying that we're in a post-race America is so blasphemous. I feel like what's really happening is that people are being more covert about their racism. So I think from the top to the bottom, from President Obama to some kid in Kentucky who has 2,000 followers on his Vine channel, Black folks are the pioneers of this digital landscape.

Erin Christovale.
Erin Christovale.

 


 

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