Rhea Storr explores Black and Mixed-race cultural representation with an interest in the in-between, the culturally ineffable, translation, format and aesthetics. She is concerned with performance, costume and the politics of masquerade. In particular she has employed carnival as a means to articulate a complex relationship between Britain and the Caribbean that underlines the importance of location. She also images Black and Mixed-race bodies in rural spaces. Often working in photochemical film, Rhea Storr considers counter-cultural ways of producing moving-image.
In partnership with the Hayward Gallery exhibition, IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC is an exciting new film season of features and shorts selected by writer and curator Ekow Eshun by visionary filmmakers from across the African diaspora, showcasing films that explore the concept of fantasy to inventively recycle and reconfigure aspects of myth, speculative fiction, spiritual traditions and legacies of Afrofuturism in order to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities and conjure otherworldly visions out of the everyday Black experience and beyond.
IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC, a season of films selected by Ekow Eshun at BFI Southbank throughout July is running concurrently with the Hayward Gallery exhibition A select number of titles are also available UK-wide on BFI Player. Alt caught up with Storr to talk on the eve of her short “Here is the Imagination of the Black Radical” being shown at IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC.
What stories are important to you?
I often tell stories from my own experiences or the experiences of those who are close to me. I’m interested in communicating from the position of Caribbean diaspora in the UK. I frequently make work around the performance of women and I like to consider how our environment shapes us, especially what we are able to say in a cultural context. Above all, I am drawn to narratives which are told with a thoughtful and sensitive treatment of the people they represent.
Why did you want to make a story about Junkanoo?
I have Bahamian and British heritage and live in the UK. Junkanoo is not well known in the context in which I live. ‘Here is the Imagination of the Black Radical’, is the third of three films about carnival/Junkanoo. The first ‘Junkanoo Talk’ focuses on costume making where I used the intricate crafting of costumes as a way to understand more about my own culture. The second, ‘A Protest, A Celebration, A Mixed Message’ looks at Leeds West Indian Carnival in the UK and my position growing up in rural Yorkshire. It’s more about spectatorship, diaspora and the role of the city in forming cultural context. The final film, ‘Here is the Imagination of the Black Radical’ gives an insight into the experience of Junkanoo as well as the huge amount of labour which goes into producing the parade. It differentiates itself from UK carnivals- the film has been a way for me to connect with family and meet more Bahamians.
How did you decide what media to be creative in, how did you start film making?
I started out making different contraptions for cameras which would force me to move in specific ways or restrict the view of the camera. I wanted to visit familiar places with a fresh way of looking. Continuing a fondness for producing objects, I took to analogue filmmaking because of the material result- a filmstrip that you can hold, make marks and scratches into and you can see being projected. This materiality suits the content of my work. Often where Black subjects meet resistance is in relation to the body, its appearance and representation in images. What does it mean to treat the Black body with care when making images?
Why do you like working with 16mm film?
I like that the image is not immediately available and the subject also isn’t able to see their image until the film is developed. There is distance between the event and the image. I like the materiality of film, that it has an emulsion that you can affect with physical processes if you choose. I like that film relates to archive material from a certain time when 16mm film was used for newsreel and documentary footage. If 16mm news footage no longer has the feel of immediacy (phone footage would be more appropriate now) then I want to question what else it might do. For instance, by using black and white super 8 in my latest film ‘Through a Shimmering Prism, We Made a Way’ there is a confusion of time and place (it is shot between the Bahamas and the UK).
In the context of Ekow Eshun’s season, how does it feel to be described as a visionary filmmaker?
I’m humbled to be described as a visionary filmmaker and for my work to be in a programme with other great films. I think a lot about the circulation of my films and those made by Black filmmakers in general. I want to understand how my work is narrated, what it sits alongside and what themes or interests (for a Black audience and otherwise) the film holds. The production of a film is just the start. That it is included in the season is exciting because I’m very interested in a Black fantastic where politics and aesthetics collide.
Do you identify as a Black Radical and where does the Black Radical gaze sit in the film industry?
I am interested in the Black Radical Tradition but I’d like to be more specific about what this means. It’s often but not always applied to a US perspective. I am interested in a New Black Aesthetic for filmmaking, one that challenges an approach to filmmaking as a whole. Calling for a New Black Aesthetic is not necessarily what might be thought of as directly activist film but is equally important. I think a Black Radical filmmaking practice focused on form changes the culture of image making which pervades our everyday lives. Guyanese writer Wilson Harris makes this point about the Caribbean novel, that the form must depart from traditional Western writing styles which are the language of the colonial project. It would be great to see more films celebrated that are about Black lives and made by a Black crew rather than through the lens and language of white directors.
Tell us about the selection of your work for the In the Black Fantastic BFI Southbank season, how did it feel to have your work selected by Ekow?
Amazing! I’m really interested in Ekow’s work around Afrofuturism and the idea that it’s an aesthetic based on the circumstances of a people that have been made other. That somehow the creative or imaginative life can speak back to this gross marginalisation.
Do you see your film as being part the Black Fantastic as a wider cultural movement? Exploring the creative possibilities of the fantastic as a space between the imagined and the real to express ideas and reimagine ways of representation.
Yes I’m interested in experimental filmmaking (although I’m not keen on the word). I think there’s a wider cultural movement which allows Black artists to cross between media and genres of filmmaking. I’m thinking about visual albums like Janelle Monae’s ‘Dirty Computer’. Arthur Jafa for instance, has an amazing cinematography career in his own right but has also shown photographs and books of images in exhibition format. Even Jafa’s ‘Love is the Message, the Message is Death’ crosses genres by taking found footage and setting it to Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’. In the show, Nick Cave and Hew Locke’s work bring ideas around costume into a gallery context. I think the Black Fantastic is able to take in information from different sources– almost to excess. It has a similarity to living in diaspora- multiple sources of information from multiple cultures. In my own work I like to use 16mm film alongside archival footage and use voices like samples for a polyvocal understanding of the subject.
Personally are there any main highlights for you in Ekow’s film season / exhibition that you would recommend or are looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to seeing Chain Reaction by Nick Cave. I’ve not been able to see his Soundsuits in person before and being interested in carnival I’d like to see how this work is encountered as sculpture. I would recommend Alberta Whittle’s ‘Between a Whisper and A Cry’. I remember being taken away by the rhythm of the film and the fact that it made clear the link between oppression and climate change. I saw it originally at Dundee Centre for Contemporary Art right after hurricane Dorian and it’s the first time I’ve heard an artist talk about the Bahamas in a UK artist talk.
How far have we come in the film industry when Sir Horace Ove has just been knighted and the late Menelik Shabazz had been constantly overlooked as Black filmmakers working in Britain?
It is so important that pioneers like Horace Ove and Menelik Shabazz are recognised, especially for younger generations to learn from them and build on their legacies. I feel that recently there has been an interest in 80’s film workshops which came out of the Workshop Declaration. Menelik Shabazz was a founder member of Ceddo Film and Video Çollective and Black Audio Film Collective also came out of this initiative. What I think is overlooked is that the workshops were provided resources and had little restriction on what they had to produce. They were able to tell their own stories. There are other great female filmmakers too like Martina Atille and Pratibha Parmar making work around diaspora. That influential filmmaker’s work is recognised late is also a warning: which filmmakers are being overlooked right now and how can we make sure that they get recognition rather than in the later stages of their career?
The film season includes celebrated titles by Djibril Diop Mambety (TOUKI BOUKI, 1973), Julie Dash (DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, 1991) Haile Gerima (SANKOFA, 1993), Souleymanne Cisse (YEELEN, 1987), John Sayles (THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, 1984) and Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU, 1987) as well as recently acclaimed films by Mati Diop (ATLANTICS, 2019) and Samuel ‘Blitz’ Bazawule (THE BURIAL OF KOJO, 2018), as well as 2 themed programmes of shorts including recent work by Rhea Storr (HERE IS THE IMAGINATION OF THE BLACK RADICAL, 2020), Alberta Whittle (BETWEEN A CRY AND A WHISPER, 2019), James Van der Pool (DARK MATTER: A HISTORY OF THE AFROFUTURE, 2021) and Nuotama Bodumo (AFRONAUTS, 2014).
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and TOP OF THE HEAP are also available to subscribers plus EVE’S BAYOU is also available to rent UK-wide on BFI Player.