Shotgun Reviews

The Black Radical Imagination II at REDCAT

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Noé Gaytán reviews The Black Radical Imagination II at REDCAT in Los Angeles.

Jeannette Ehlers. Still from Black Bullets, 2012; 4:33 min.

Jeannette Ehlers. Black Bullets, 2012 (video still); 4:33.

The notion of the black radical imagination stems from the writing of Robin D.G. Kelley, in which he argued that “before we can come together for [revolutionary] movements, we must use our imagination to conjure new ideas.”[1] Taking that as a starting point, curators Erin Christovale and Amir George brought together a series of experimental films that explore the ideas, images, or concepts that are necessary to create a paradigm shift within the black diaspora. Many of the films echoed the work of Luis Buñuel and Maya Deren. During the Q&A, the curators mentioned the influenced of D. Scot Miller, who claimed that to introduce Afro to Surrealism means to add an element of the mystical or metaphorical.[2] The Black Radical Imagination II explores how that concept is manifested in experimental cinema.

The screening began with the synthesized electronic beats of Lewis Vaughn. The Baptist (2012), his proposed world for revolutionary freedom, is a Technicolor dream. In the film, a spirit wanders a mystical forest searching for redemption. Although the protagonist does not find what he is looking for, the non-narrative short closes with slow ambient digital ambient beats evolving into a faster angelic chorus, and a bright light that saturates the many colors as the camera zooms out and the title appears. The effect is a sense of hope.

In her short film Field Notes (2014), artist Vashti Harrison explores Caribbean ghost stories and folk tales as told by her family members. Her approach to filmmaking is less an act of creating from pure imagination and more an act of capturing the eerie moments and stories that exist in real life. With a strong element of documentary provided by the handmade feel of the film, Field Notes sways whimsically between the real and the surreal.

The relationship between real and not real is further explored in John Akomfrah’s Memory Room 451 (1997), in which memories become dreams and dreams become memories. With the ability to extract memories and travel through time, the dystopian characters reconstruct black history. Unlike the other works, Akomfrah’s film directly addresses the possibilities of revolution. Within the film, the shifting of the narrative is accomplished by literally rewriting memories, but this serves as a metaphor for how real-world social change may occur. It demonstrates how conjuring new ideas can empower the oppressed.

Akomfrah, Harrison, Vaughn, and the rest of the filmmakers included in The Black Radical Imagination II present marvelous and distinct visions that offer counterpoints to the stereotypes of the black diaspora in mainstream cinema. Changing the discourse in cinema (via messages of hope, mysticism, or empowerment) offers but one example of the many types of revolutions the black radical imagination is capable of achieving.

The Black Radical Imagination II was screened at REDCAT in Los Angeles on November 10, 2014.

Noé Gaytán is an artist, writer, and curator. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Public Practice at Otis College of Art and Design.

[1] Erin Christovale, Curator’s Statement (Los Angeles, CA: REDCAT, 2014).

[2] D. Scot Miller, “Call It Afro-Surreal,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 19, 2009.