In the 1980s, a pivotal decade in British culture and society, a series of radical filmmaking collectives – the UK Black Film Workshop Movement – sprung up against a backdrop of divisive national politics and civil unrest. Our 2020 film tour Second Sight explores the legacy of the Movement, incorporating key titles from the period alongside new commissions from contemporary artists. In this piece, ahead of the tour launch at the Barbican on 18 Feb, artist filmmaker Ayo Akingbade reflects on her experience of the Black Film Workshop Movement and how she conceived of and created Claudette’s Star, one of the new commissions, in response.
“The urban landscape, that claustrophobic landscape, that was our experience. There is no time to sit down and explain to people how you’re feeling or what’s going on in your mind, or that you’re worried about the future. It’s jobs or no jobs. You dance, kiss, and run.” – Martina (Judah) Attille, quoted in ‘An Interview with Martina Attille and Isaac Julien of Sankofa’ in Young, British, and Black: The Work of Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective, Coco Fusco (1988)
Not many moons ago, I was at film school, eager to find depictions and authentic imagery of people and things which looked like or reflected myself. A simple ask you say? Well, it proved to be an ambitious one, but thanks to my university’s library and the resources and space it afforded me, I was able to look closely.
One day, an artsy tutor played Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986) with Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and La Jetée (1966). These three films left a big, bright imprint on my brain; I saw myself and it resonated. I started to look up Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and lesser known film collectives. It dawned on me whilst researching that Black British experimental cinema boomed in the period of 1980 to 1998 but fizzled out in the early noughties. Why was this? My young filmmaker response was, “I just need to start creating then!”
This urgency is what led me through my film studies and ultimately to make In Ur Eye (2015) and Tower XYZ (2016) – the latter of which would not have been possible without funding from Arts Council England through the initiative STOP PLAY RECORD, led by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) & Channel 4.
Fast-forward to 2020 and I am pursuing a postgraduate diploma at a prestigious art school, living and thinking as an artist. Most importantly, I am in a supportive, creative space with freedom to make whatever I want. So, mentally I am in a good headspace, and when I was first approached by the ICO and LUX with the Second Sight commission, I was quite ecstatic. The opportunity to pay homage to the Black Film Workshop Movement seemed like going back to the foundation of my artistic practice, a great stage on which to honour its legacy. I knew from day one that I would feature artist Claudette Johnson’s artwork Trilogy (Parts One, Two and Three) 1982-6. If you haven’t guessed already, the film is partly an ode to her and countless women who were involved in the movement, but who are now either forgotten or simply not spoken about to the same degree as their male counterparts.
During my research stage I managed to get my hands on a rare 1988 book by Cuban-American artist and writer Coco Fusco called Young, British, and Black: the work of Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective. Sadly, I found that what was expressed by the artists in their interviews with Fusco still feels quite current. The same issues and problems are still prevalent, despite the fact that this year, the book will be thirty two years old. I refuse to be negative in my approach but whilst creating Claudette’s Star, I had many questions and one key goal was to talk to my generation, my peers, who feature in the film.I hope it is a symbol of encouragement – for you and I.
It would be a little egotistic to think or say the film is a ‘new thing’ but because there has been a drought in the cinematic landscape of Black British cinema, many will see it as ‘new’. In my opinion, though, it is not, it is simply my everyday.
As much as we have to look at things in retrospect, it is equally important to look forward. I think the films in Second Sight are like small gems on a big necklace: more need to be added to make it truly reflective and more valuable. I have a strong sense that a new movement is occurring and that we are at the start of another big boom. Writers, curators and artists alike, we should be programming, conversing and trying to build links, instead of side-eyeing who is doing what. I think once we are in control of our image, this will shake up the consensus and bring about real change.
I can not describe the fluttering feeling I have to know the film will tour across the UK. I want people to see it and I am eager to know their thoughts, especially as so far, my work has played more abroad than in the UK. One request I have for people watching the programme is that I would like them to be patient, to look closely, like I often have to do.
Last week I visited a show at Tate Modern with my friend Jacqueline Abrahams and she sent a text message not too long after: “Acting now is the antidote to anxiety, which only inhabits the realm of the imaginary.” I think the line is a perfect conclusion to this piece.
Second Sight launches at the Barbican on Wednesday 18 February with a screening of the New Commissions plus screen talk with Ayo Akingbade and the other artists represented in the programme: Onyeka Igwe (of B.O.S.S. Collective), Morgan Quaintance and Rehana Zaman. Book tickets.
The Barbican will also screen two archive films from the tour on Wednesday 23 February – Dreaming Rivers (introduced by Ayo Akingbade) and Omega Rising Women of Rastafari (introduced by Aleema Gray, Community History Curator at the Museum of London). Book tickets.