Walk into any major institution like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, or any Natural History Museum around Europe and you will be confronted with hall after hall of glass vitrines containing artifacts and relics of ancient cultures around the globe. Egyptian sarcophagi, African tribal masks, and Native American Totem poles are all easily recognizable hallmarks of any museum's permanent collection but more often than not their presence there is a direct byproduct of imperialist violence.
Often acquired through conquest and looting, many of the world's revered artifacts are the spoils of colonization and war making for a problematic existence. The British Museum returned eight 5,000 year-old artifacts to Iraq earlier this year after it was learned that they were obtained through looting but only offered to loan out a set of bronze statues to their country of origin, Nigeria. It is this type of conditional return that reasserts structures of imperial power over liberated colonies, depriving indigenous populations access to their own history.
It's this deprivation of agency over one's collective history that filmmaker, Akinola Davies, explores in his new film HOD. A frequent collaborator of musician Blood Orange and fashion label Kenzo, Davies examines the issue of reclaiming African identity in the absence of cultural artifacts.
Working with Seoul-based art company sketchedSPACE to facilitate Davies debut US show at Washington's DuPont Underground, HOD will be on view from September 27th through October 20th.
"Their curiosity and approach to working with artists from different backgrounds, their willingness to engage in cultural exchange and to broker dialogue is refreshing," said Davies of working with sketchedSPACE, "it means a lot to collaborate with people of colour, and enhances the conversation that this is not a black/white binary, but rather a shared cultural discourse, that has far reaching resonance in terms of production and ownership of the work."
We caught up with Davies to discuss the ideas behind the work and get an exclusive look at stills from the film:
What first drew you to this subject matter?
The conversation of displacement - talking about energies in an alienated space, and trying to apply the meaning to objects and artifacts in alienated spaces, and the urge to return them home. Cradled within that is the notion of giving ourselves permission to create and tell our stories, that can become stories and mythologies, unifying as opposed to isolating ourselves.
This work stems from an inherent awareness borne of the collective lived experience of diaspora, and culture, community building and the various contexts within which the idea of the self is created, and how the self is perceived from an external gaze. I was inspired from internal conversations that I innately have had, the themes of which have been a constant strand throughout my work body. What consecrated this idea from thought to actualization were words from Kerry James Marshall, on the importance of creating and having agency over a mythology for black people. Hearing Arthur Jaffa articulate ideas that were ones in my head, helped to further crystallize ideas of radical energies and the vibrations they emit. Hearing these two black artists speak my internal language, almost left me feeling as if I had no choice but to make the work. I gave myself permission to externalize my thoughts. This subject isn't juxtaposed against anything, but speaks of the necessity and reality for telling stories of reclamation, whilst inspiring people to have their own conversations of displacement and reclamation. Voicing emotions, experiences and truths through creativity in a way that is positive, and empowering.
How did the film eventually come together?
Drawing on the notion of freedom, and stories being told. I approached artisans who I admire and was intrigued by. People who have creative narratives which I wanted to see come to life, with as much space to create their visions as possible.
It was a process of collaboration from the beginning. I would speak to artisans, costume designers about the theme of reclamation, radical displacement, identity and diaspora. We would then take research trips to find artifacts that spoke of otherness, familiarity, entrapment and personal histories that resonated within these ancient works. From there, the custodians were created and their own mythologies written and developed. The process of making the music was similar. The overarching theme was one of freedom and trust. This was a process that went through many iterations of making, and our methods were unique in that none of the designers had knowledge of who the others were, there was no intention to have a uniform look or feel to the film, but rather a true reflection of the expression of reclamation and radical displacement according to individual voices. There have been so many artists that directly and indirectly contributed to this process.
What was something that surprised you in the making of this film?
The term surprising, in this film can be applied to every element of the making. Working with 35mm film, and the outcome of seeing the work once it was finished, but ultimately, the most significant, and recurrent thing that I appreciated and gave pause for consideration was the willingness for people to be involved, and the extent to which they resonated with the themes, and invested evocative, touching and significant research. It was an ambitious undertaking, and the willingness for people to be so invested and involved was a constant negotiation. When there are so many moving parts, it is both positive and inspiring, equally there is a huge sense of responsibility to carry the integrity of not only my ideas forward, but those of others. It was an experience that carried a lot of privilege but there was a constant sense of risk which has been an interesting navigation. Artists like Mowalola Ogunesi, Neesha Champaneria, Ola Olu Ebiti, Feben Vemmenby, Rhona Ezuma, Tim Dewit, Nicolai Neirman, Stephanie Kevers, Moya Deyoung and everyone else involved went above and beyond in terms of their time, willingness to participate and the generosity of their time.
Should there be more of an effort to decolonize Western collections?
There should be more of an effort to decolonize Western Collections and demystifying the histories attached. Equally, there should be more of an effort to dismantle the structural power imbalances caused by the legacy of all forms of imperial and colonialism. Constantly.
What do you hope people take away after watching the film?
I hope people take their own meanings from the work. I don't aim to dictate any reaction. One thing I do hope for all people who resonate with these themes and ideas, is a continuing sense of solidarity, and that we continue to work towards self determination; that a global diaspora feels emboldened to share their stories and evoke their agency and that we have permission to speak and be heard.
Photo Courtesy of Akinola Davies