On Cecile Emeke and the conditions of Black Cultural Production

Cecile Emeke’s aesthetic decisions as a filmmaker have been provocative, bold, and often profound, playing with elements of the absurd, the surreal, the comedic, and the magic realism of a distinctly modern, Caribbean life. Since the development of her impactful diasporic, independently produced debut web-series Strolling (2014 – 2016), she has employed sound as her most malleable tool, creating unexpected,  transgressive textures. Take, for example, the static-laden, radio transmitted, heavily accented Jamaican patois heard in the bewildering, claustrophobic Wilton (2016). Or questions voiced by inquisitive children on the life of celebrated artist Faith Ringgold in the reverential The Ancestors Came (2017).

To be confronted with the shapeshifting vocal distortions of narrator Geraldine Thomas in an entirely sincere, comprehensive and essential step by step guide to creating a film: the black london edition (2018) is another disarming mutation of Emeke’s evolving methods of looking at corrosive power structures and our relationship as audience and critics to (what we could refer to cynically as) “black cultural production” or (more optimistically, spiritually) the conditions under which black “creativity” is manufactured and distributed as “work”. The film, which could be related to the Youtube based performance work of artist Jayson Musson’s Art Thoughtz (2010 – 2012), takes the shape of a tutorial, a “how-to” manual for the frustrated, the cynical, the hopeful, the curious. An overwhelming title for a common dilemma, the film opens with disclaimers, declarations of what it will not do. This is an example of coping, subverting, and refusing the pressures of making representative, symbolic work. As Treva Ellison writes in The Strangeness of Progress and the Uncertainty of Blackness,  “a representational mode always produces an absence or excess”. The development of a black artist’s aesthetic revolves around a flawed dichotomy, to which the perennial question of the black art critic appears, is this work too much or not enough?

Disclaimer:

“This film will not partially or fully heal any of the following – religious conflict, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, poverty, rape culture, neo-colonialism, colourism, imperialism, anglophone privilege, childhood wounds, unaddressed insecurities, historical trauma, generational trauma, the UK housing crisis, the underdevelopment of Africa, the six hundred and fifty million dollar debt that the IMF knows that Jamaica will never be able to pay off and/ or any other event, feeling, situation or manifestation that would be categorised as babylon business dis.”

Certainly one of the more formally avant-garde 1 offerings from the artist and director so far—partly because her technical choices examining mundane, everyday “stock” images of black life and ideology—draw my attention to the process of making itself. Faced with the self-expectation of dismantling white supremacy, the young, broke and woke black artist sets out on a meandering search for an authentic self in a corporate-driven image industry that is ironically underpinned by the unfulfilling paradox of attempting to be (as the title suggests) comprehensive or essentialist*2 about blackness. It is blackness’ paradoxes that propel the comedic horror of the viewing experience, the need for black cinema and art to mean something to black people, to educate white people, to contain an inherent duplicity; a winking satire inhabiting the slippery realm of entertainment as critique, criticism as entertainment.

Black London, similar but not at all the same as other black cities aka “the black elite3 of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles*, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Kingston, are, among other things, sites where Eurocentrism (aka the chaotic afterbirth of British and European colonialism,* perpetuated by a U.S. antebellum slave economy, where a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film built and sustained the image industry we call Hollywood) and Blackness intersect in all its mess, prismatic, sometimes anarchic, and yes, problematic forms. This is an ambitious film: how to be comprehensive about Blackness? Why even bother? The infinitely claustrophobic chokehold of anti-blackness in all its forms, it’s limitless potential for disaster and renewal, therefore holding its unyielding value— a diamond maybe, an English rose, or maybe as pioneering Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote in 1991, People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries… I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth.”

In 1988, Hall wrote and published New Ethnicities, a landmark text for critical awareness and a resourceful way to navigate a complicated, shifting modern social landscape. “You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world.” When looking at the development of Emeke’s aesthetic of restlessness, inchoate in the sense that it focuses on the liminal spaces, consider the words of the pioneering black anthropologist, documentarian, and writer Zora Neale Hurston from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.” Making films about blackness is a multifaceted task that contains a set of inherent difficulties and complexities that are inextricable from society’s constructions around racial and cultural identity, class, gender, morality, religion, sexuality, desire, and pleasure. What Hall refers to as the end of innocence” or the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject” is seen and articulated within the bizarre, hyperreal world of Emeke’s film. There are consistent satirical visualizations of the academic and the corporate, where there is a compulsory heterosexuality or straightness, that which is assumed to be quotidian, acceptable and accepted, dutifully unquestioned.  

The film presents us with spare but not empty images “filled” with jarring subtitles and captions, disrupting or corroborating the ideas, dislocating the self. Adhering to the “I don’t give a fuck” formal principles of minimalism, conceptual art, and punk, as a collection of images, they function as subversive “content”*4 to be filled with interpretation, radical or otherwise— this is the strength of the work. Re-reading the camera as a racially historicized object that holds potential for necessary critical interventions, a conceptual process I have described as the “muse as critic”. I’m looking at curator Erin Christovale’s and artist Martine Syms’ examination of visual culture through a black radical imaginative lens, which becomes in the film, a play between the visual, feeling, and thinking. This manifests itself in Emeke’s guide as juxtapositions between the lens of the anonymous photographer-as-good-guy and the overused but effective Hollywood shot of a gun pointed to the camera, filling the frame, acknowledging the camera-as-weapon. A blissfully cheerful black woman appears in the center of the image-inside-image, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding context and chaos. Or perhaps it is her awareness that makes her an agent of change. She holds a camera, actively enjoying taking pictures while the image is invaded with words, a  reminder of the bloody historical documentation of black life, where flesh became commodity, reminiscent of the bleakly humorous, minimalist scrawls of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early graffiti work with Al Diaz as SAMO (once abbreviated for “same old shit”, interestingly then dropped after they changed the world, they were then faced with the task of living in it).

I’m confronted with further questions typed in an imaginary real-time, filling the void of an empty text file, “How does whiteness, specifically the seeming omnipresence and invisibility of whiteness affect all creative work? How has whiteness affected the infrastructure of creative forms themselves?To this, I return to Stuart Hall, whose work destabilizes whiteness as the ‘center’ of European aestheticism and provokes contemporary and potentially liberatory discussions.The displacement of the ‘centred’ discourses of the West entails putting in question its universalist character and its transcendental claims to speak for everyone while being itself everywhere and nowhere.” This seeming omnipresence creates space for experimentation, a way of seeing theorist Jared Sexton has stylized as  “hyper/in/visibilityin a 2017 interview On Black Negativity or the Affirmation of Nothing;  to be both everywhere and nowhere becomes the fractured subjectivities of the people” or “we, the people”.  He elaborates on  “…the discussion of a critical strategy among black queer and transgender artists of a sort of visual oscillation between presence and absence, suggesting a necessary black counter-surveillance… a certain counter-intelligence and counter-intuition at work.” What interventions can be made by examining work made about the infrastructures in which they are manufactured? In 2012, curatorial platform e-flux collaborated with artist and theorist Hito Steyerl on a landmark solo exhibition of her two-channel video Abstract (2012). In it, Steyerl writes thatThe moment an image appears on a screen, a web of political relationships is not only reflected but actively produced. This places the forces responsible for images at the very center of an ethics of production and reception.” Steyerl further comments in Politics of Post-Representation, “…we have to face up to the fact that there is no automatically available road to resistance and organization for artistic labor.”

Step Five: “Flood your subconscious; mind is a blank slate”, draw all references from an ethnocentric canon of film that has been created through a careful process of diffusion of responsibility and mere-exposure effect.” I’m urgently reminded here of a moment in Derica Shields’ 2014 essay, Face Me, I Face You, an exercise in re-remembering or a process of unlearning early impositions of the powerful white imagination in the British classroom. I remember my English teacher’s thumbs pressed firmly into the corners of my desk as she insists that the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets is not dark in that sense. What was I looking for when I searched these white faces for a “touch of tar?” The truest face of British history, its blackness elliptical and submerged?” She writes to reclaim a part of an adolescent self, when the less experienced black mind of childhood is undergoing a rigorous educational process of learning how to see and be seen.5 At the end of innocence, you will find the beginnings of yet another radical black imagination, righteously mad with an anti-colonial, Killmongerian spirit of vengeance. Unsatisfied with simply posing questions, the film-as-text responds to itself, a resounding message of loss and incomprehension, “What’s a mentor? Trees don’t need roots, so why do you think you’re special? Figure that shit out on your own!” Then, a quick note from our narrator Geraldine, “For a reminder of why your ancestors were busy and unable to contribute, please see step two.”*

I’m looking at Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey’s The Undercommons essays, published in 2013, (another wild work of startling, visceral sincerity) this idea of black artists’ traditional bartering for credit in the real world, the straight world. Moten and Harvey play with the concept of debt, where to be black is to be indebted. I see myself and others like me in this, where the conception and development of parts of my own “work” are “indebted” or “credited”, “owned” by corporate social media platforms Instagram, Youtube, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Vine. It compels me to consider the perverse ways in which the “indebted” are granted “mercy” (for being privileged enough to be chronically underpaid, overworked, and exhausted). In her 2017 research project Misericordia: Mercy & Other Diseases, curator Amal Alhaag responds to a global contemporary “crisis”  that I will interpret partly as a framework of resistance to bleak illustrations of black artistic life. She describes an antagonism for, or a tolerance of the unpopular opinion, a racialized “Debby Downer“ figure, an intentionally jarring persona reminiscent of Musson’s Hennessy Youngman in Art Thoughtz, or the film’s narrator Geraldine Thomas:

“The person who struggles against the hierarchy of mercy…The person who refuses the innate nature of charity and compassion since it tends to produce a boomerang effect, in which accepting the gift of giving suggests a certain debt… and constructs a problematic, inequitable relationship that one can seldom escape or pay off. This ongoing relationship can be read alongside the politics of mediatization and the everyday struggle of undocumented and racialized lives…”

I have written about the “politics of mediatization” in the rituals of black cultures, how radical black creativity both disrupts and re-establishes the value of things in the past, but as Toni Morrison said in 2004, “The past is already in debt to the mismanaged present…when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being re-examined. Is it too soon, then (or perhaps too late) to ask, what is a film?

Seated at the edge of the table, deranged with the threat of political violence in the shape of thoughts and opinions on a concerning lack of diversity 6, is where I can be found enduring the end of a certain kind of innocence, perpetually struggling with and problematizing the concept of ethnicity itself. Blackness, globally and locally, is an endless list of unprecedented achievement 7Oh, the barbed golden gates of black artistic excellence! As if these simultaneously, intermittently trapped and mobilizing black communities should be pacified by individual, media-driven success stories – the glittering awards, magazine covers with black hair brutally cropped out of the page, kinks out of sight. The film offers a sharp bullet-point, how to infiltrate the black elite successfully.” Geraldine’s cheerful, sinister, academic tone reveals the unreality of a definable black elitism and the dizzyingly ephemeral, material and social rewards of the upwardly socially mobile. Critic Margo Jefferson carefully elaborates on these demands of impossible essentialism in her 2015 memoir Negroland. It affirms the end of an essential black subject in her descriptions of the emotional and psychological trappings of such inherited aspirations:

Our Negroland legacy of proscription and privilege, grief and achievement, a mingled love and shame for our people, a mingled love and terror of white culture. And then (as if the result of these others), despair and a furious will to extinguish the self. My people’s enemies have done this to me. But so have my own loved ones. My enemies took too much. My loved ones asked too much. Let me say with care that the blame is not symmetrical: my enemies forced my loved ones to ask too much of me.”

Black elitism, as I understand it, is a complicated interwoven social and professional network that gives proximity-based value to individuals who “act white”, “act woke”, or as Geraldine suggests in step two in our guide, “jump through hoops so a next man will give you money!” Those of us who are celebrated in the straight world, the real world, with the perceived intention of being closer to whiteness which, if indeed is everywhere and nowhere, inevitably creates arbitrary, fractured and fragmenting notions of what it means to be successful. Institutional support and power then become directly linked to proximity 8, heritage and of course, the privileges denied and afforded to us all.

Critic Hilton Als writes about navigating with a certain dexterity, advocating for the importance of a messy, intra-community based black interior aesthetic in his 2003 profile of the iconic Black writer Toni Morrison, “Situating herself inside the black world, Morrison undermined the myth of black cohesiveness. With whiteness offstage, or certainly right of center, she showed black people fighting with each other…Morrison revelled in the complications. “‘I didn’t want it to be a teaching tool for white people. I wanted it to be true—not from outside the culture… I wanted it to come from inside the culture, and speak to people inside the culture. It was about a refusal to pander or distort or gain political points. I wanted to reveal and raise questions.’” Therein lies the paradox of a vague neoliberal, unreal, utopian vision of black elitism. While making work with and for overwhelmingly white institutions to gain funding and prestige is a type of social trauma that is difficult for many to articulate, partly because its tangible rewards often appear in the insidious, glamorous form of dazzling media9 generalizations accompanied by frenzied critical acclaim, blockbuster films10, a Golden Age of Melanin Magic! Black excellence is heavy, ominous gifts falling inexplicably from the sky, crushed and scattered remnants hanging from some of our necks, adorned or as critic Fanta Sylla puts it, “a gift too opulent to not be at least partially corrupted”. Corruption, distortion, and from a gentler perspective, metamorphosis as concepts are successfully aestheticized, monetized through advertising, distributed by manufacturers.*

This is Emeke’s 2018, not Micheaux’s 1918* or Burnett’s 1978**11.

Contemporary black women artists are still expected to perform the politics of their work as much with their bodies and self-image as accessible, relatable, representative, and literal models of a visible, public, and fashionable concoction of feminist activism in order to explain the context of the work. Black women know how exhausting, seductive, and deadly it is to be constantly made and unmade by hegemonies of beauty. When there is an end to an essential black subject, it also means there is an end to an essential black artist or director or writer or curator or muse or cultural practitioner. As curator Rianna Jade Parker writes, “The space between black consciousness raising and black experimentation is in constant flux. It cannot be contained.” In our now uncomfortably, wonderfully disjointed and inceptive post-computer age, social practice is largely based on information or “content” circulated on the internet and social media. This puts already fragmented conceptions of blackness, and therefore, public imaginations of the real, genuine, sincere, authentic, honest-to-god black, African-black-American-black-European black, Jamaican-black-Caribbean black, not-half-black-just-black black, not-brown-not-blue black, regular black artist at the forefront of inquisitive and neo-liberal minds as an alluring potential subject, a shape-shifting fantasy. While being seemingly, disarmingly full of integrity (from where? God knows!) the neoliberal black subject must also be surveilled, censored, digestible, definitive, containable, and, terrifyingly, fun. Near the film’s end, a warped, disembodied voice, There’s a big difference between manufacturing, creating and creatively manufacturing. At the moment, due to the infrastructure and the established, accepted practice – we can only do the latter, at best.”  

an entirely sincere, comprehensive and essential step by step guide to creating a film: the black london edition was Commissioned by London Short Film Festival and supported by Arts Council England National Lottery Funding.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kareem Reid is an artist, writer and founder of Body Party, an intentionally queer space for black bodies and the people who love them. Graduating with a BA Film and Literature from University of Warwick in 2013, his critical essays, club nights and video installations have been featured in institutions Museum Volkenkunde (Leiden, Netherlands) and Tate Britain (London) as well as London and New York-based publications Dazedi-DBritish Film InstituteThe Fader and Paper.

  1. Anneka Jin refers to avant-garde as an aim “ to defamiliarize and provoke” 
  2. *Stuart Hall’s theory of the “end of the essential black subject”, discussed in arts.black 
  3. Only a partial list, the exploration of an anglophone “black elite” of Africa and the Caribbean alone is potentially another essay
  4. The look and feel of the film direct me to the idea of content – I am interested in exploring further here the traditional use in language of the word and how it intersects with business / marketing terminologies as related to image production and a global black vernacular as related to producing quality content for social media. Content traditionally defined as “a state of mind which results from satisfaction with present circumstances.”
  5.  This illuminating essay has a loose narrative of visiting London’s National Portrait Gallery and engaging in the act of looking while contextualizing. It is a key resource when exploring the current possibilities of “contemporary art writing”.
  6. A “roundtable” discussion based on The 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value 
  7. *Take the remarkable contributions from writer and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (b. 1884 – 1951) or more recently, the electrifying presence of Black London’s own, Daniel Kaluuya (b. 1989) and John Boyega (b. 1992) a new kind of Black star. Lena! Oprah! Ava! Idris! Letitia! Steve!
  8. London’s cultural positioning within the Black British Arts Movement and significant other British artistic movements/exhibitions in relation to being organized in Nottingham, Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Bristol.
  9. If we are to believe what we are told, we are the first generation of artists to dismantle masculinity, revolutionize nightlife and embody queerness!
  10. Marvel Comics and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, (2018) “the biggest selling superhero movie of! all! Time!”. Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) “two straight black men from the hood, in love!”
  11. * In 1918 Oscar Micheaux was a year away from releasing his first (lost) film to critical and commercial acclaim in 1919, based on his novel The Homesteader published 1917. The screenplay as we know it had only been recently invented, which makes his film one of the first of its kind by any American artist. ** In 1978 Charles Burnett releases Killer of Sheep, seminal L.A. Rebellion film, using European art house cultural references to visualize a new black American subjectivity