Caméras d’Afrique: The Films of West Africa

October 8, 2013

It’s impossible to pack an entire region’s cultural ambitions into a handful of screenings, but as the wide range of films scheduled in Caméras d’Afrique: The Films of West Africa makes evident­—a handful goes a long way. It’s produced in partnership with Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television, Film Independent, and LACMA, and runs Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of October through October 28 (with free Monday-night screenings on the LMU campus). And, if my hopes are fulfilled, the gorgeously rendered works of art will stimulate audience interests and passions.

My goal with this series is to help Angelenos understand that one of the most combustible collaborations occurs when a new technology—cinema—is added to one of the planet’s oldest narrative traditions: that of Africa’s, whose storytelling history long outstrips that of Europe’s and the Americas’. Though West Africa may not have an investment in film that goes back to the silent era of movies, the use of silence by the directors in this series is still powerful and telling. The films scheduled include two seminal movies from the region: Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene’s tough-minded feature debut, 1963’s Borom Sarret (thought to be the first film about black Africans to be directed by a black African), is the story of a poor wanderer learning about himself as he puts together a living, and 1967’s Soleil O, by Mauritanian director Med Hondo, which is a meta-examination of the exploited—he uses all of the powers of the medium to spell out the awakening of the black laborer in amused—and bemused—terms.

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Still from Borom Sarrett

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Still from Borom Sarrett

Among the offerings, director Ferid Boughedir’s 1984 documentary Caméra d’Afrique (which informed the name of this series) is a survey that encompasses 20 years of filmmaking in Africa. Boughedir’s work takes the viewer from the 1960s through to the 1980s; it’s a perfect piece for the series—he studies West African film with a curatorial eye as well as an artistic perspective. By covering a large number of films from the entire continent, Boughedir is able to follow the shift in subject matter from colonial threat to smaller-scale stories that still contain epic emotional range. And from the brutally satirical 1990 film Le Damier to Alain Gomis’s sweet and meditative 2012 drama, Tey, the series itself touches on just as many forms of cinematic expression—and mastery of filmmaking.

Caméras d’Afrique: The Films of West Africa consistently and compellingly exposes us to the joys of the medium from a part of the world whose filmic arts are woefully underexposed to us.

Elvis Mitchell, Film Independent at LACMA Curator


The View from the Suburbs

October 7, 2013

In his diaristic essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Robert Smithson described his first impressions of the suburban landscape, after an excursion in 1967: “Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning [it] into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph.”

For Smithson, a tour of the suburban New Jersey community resulted in an unsettling dissolution of the divide between reality and representation. The environment seemed to beg to be photographed, or, perhaps more accurately, appeared already to be a photographically and cinematically staged. Less than 20 miles outside of the reliable chaos of New York City, was this new landscape an opening onto nature, or was it something altogether artificial, even illusory?

Catherine Opie Untitled, circa 1988, printed 2006, gift of James Welling, © Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, Untitled, circa 1988, printed 2006, gift of James Welling, © Catherine Opie

The tension between the wild and the contained—the natural and the artificial—is a defining subject of much of the photography that has focused on the suburbs. Take, as an intriguing example, a work from Catherine Opie’s series The Master Plan, produced while she was a graduate student at CalArts in the mid-1980s (currently on display at LACMA as part of the selection of works Little Boxes: Photography and the Suburbs). The image shows a verdant patch of grass with the name Valencia garishly painted across it, stretched incongruously atop a sun-scorched hill. The rigid lines dividing the landscape from civilization marks where nature ends and the suburbs begin. Opie found in her immediate surroundings—the community around CalArts—an environment characterized by the push-pull of vast western landscapes and encroaching residential sprawl. Of these early works, Opie wrote that they reflected a fascination with “the absurdities of the West and its development . . . [one] can’t help but image it over and over again.” Like Smithson, Opie recognizes how the suburbs seem to invite an almost compulsive desire to photograph.

Lewis Baltz, Park City #53, 1979, gift of Betty Freeman, © Lewis Baltz

Lewis Baltz, Park City #53, 1979, gift of Betty Freeman, © Lewis Baltz

Opie acknowledges her indebtedness to the generation of photographers identified with the New Topographics exhibition that originated at George Eastman House in 1975, and which was the subject of a 2010 restaging at LACMA. Artists such as Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, and Robert Adams turned their cameras to the changing face of the American West, offering a radical renegotiation of landscape photography. These photographers focused on the conflict between the expanses of nature and the structured angularity of suburban encroachment. For Baltz, suburban architecture was “the most prominent and enduring material artifact produced by the dialectic of nature and culture.” His deadpan photographs of subdivisions and industrial parks offer unflinching views into the effects of the suburbs on the landscape. They also reveal how the growth of the suburbs reconfigured the very foundations of landscape photography.

Anthony Hernandez, Women Sunbathing, Whittier, CA, 1978, Ralph M. Parsons Fund

Anthony Hernandez, Women Sunbathing, Whittier, CA, 1978, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Anthony Hernandez

Such photographs expose the central paradox of the suburbs: the promise of a return to nature through the fabrication of artificial landscapes. This tension plays itself out in the work of photographers who emerged in the late 1970s, as part of the so-called Pictures Generation, who, with a dose of postmodern irony, created artificial worlds to comment on the manufactured character of everyday life. Artists such as Laurie Simmons, Eileen Cowin, and, later, Gregory Crewdson made the tension between the real and the artificial the subject of their work. The staged nature of the domestic experience—the cinematic qualities of daily life—emerged as key themes in the work of these artists. Crewdson’s Untitled (1991), shows a view into the backyard of a typical suburban home, constructed as a cinematic backdrop. Beneath the synthetic lawn, and underneath prosthetic flowers, a dead bird festers—a surrealistic commentary on what lies beneath the surface of suburban tranquility.

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 1991, printed 1993, Photo L.A. Fund, © Gregory Crewdson, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 1991 (printed 1993), Photo L.A. Fund, © Gregory Crewdson, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Such images reveal—as Smithson suggested in his essay—that cinema and the suburbs rely upon the same illusion: the manufactured recreation of the natural world. Despite this logical affinity, film and television have been remarkably unkind to the suburbs. Shortly after the postwar explosion in suburban development, filmmakers of all stripes took aim at the social problems endemic to the communities sprawling from city centers. From Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Joseph Sarno’s influential sexploitation Sin in the Suburbs (1964) to the punk-revolt of Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia (1983) and Richard Linklater’s grunge manifesto of the same name (1996) to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) and to the indelible opening sequence of the television show Weeds (2005), set to Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes,” the soul-crushing conformity of the suburbs has been a favorite punching bag of film—mainstream and underground alike. Perhaps Linklater was most direct—his film opens to the Gene Pitney song “Town without Pity” played over a broad sweeping pan of a seemingly endless repetition of bland structures, shot in a way that echoes the flat deadpan of the New Topographics photographers of a generation prior.

As scholars and demographers call for “The End of the Suburbs,” it is useful to look back at what artists and filmmakers have had to say about the American affinity for the single family home. The transformed landscape—the way the suburbs have recreated our image of nature, as well as how artists have imaged nature—is an ongoing process, one that seems very much bound up with processes of recording and documenting.

Stéphane Couturier, San Diego—Fenêtre, East Lake Greens, 2001,  Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Stéphane Couturier

Stéphane Couturier, San Diego—Fenêtre, East Lake Greens, 2001,
Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Stéphane Couturier

To return to Smithson, and his tour through Passaic, New Jersey, we once again land on a question of cinematic and photographic vision. Describing how he might use a camera to undo the ruin of the suburbs, he suggests, “Cinema offers an illusive or temporary escape from physical dissolution. The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity.” With this enigmatic note, Smithson ends his essay. The feeling of control over nature offered by film and photography is, Smithson contends, only an illusion. The same can be said of the suburbs.

Ryan Linkof, Ralphs M Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography


This Weekend at LACMA: Film from West Africa, Vintage Mexican Cinema, Debut of John Divola: As Far as I Could Get, Free Workshops and Events, and More!

October 4, 2013

Our friends at Film Independent present part two of “Caméras D’Afrique: The Films of West Africa” series this Saturday. Join us to see two films from West Africa and be part of a panel discussion looking at the state of West African cinema. Beginning at noon, the double feature includes L’Absence (The Absence), a skillful blend of a thriller and melodrama, and Buud Yam at 1:45 pm, which shares the tale of a young maturing tribesman and a society on the cusp of change. Following these two films stay for a discussion with curator Elvis Mitchell and three directors from the burgeoning movie scene at 3:30 pm. Tickets for this event and more from the series can be found online.

The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema series presents three classic films this weekend in conjunction with our recently opened exhibition, Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film. Beginning at 7:30 pm on Friday, María Candelaria, considered by many as the masterpiece responsible for launching Mexican cinema into the international limelight, is the second collaboration between cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. Set in the early 1900s on the brink of a revolution, María Candelaria tells the story of a lonely flower seller from a small town and a painter from the city that turns her life around. In Pueblerina (Small Town Girl), the second film of the evening’s double feature, a recently freed inmate returns to his hometown only to find that the woman he loved now lives on the outskirts of town with an illegitimate child. On Saturday at 7:30 pm, Río Escondido centers around a school teacher sent by the nation’s president to educate the remote town of Río Escondido where she’s met by a tyrannical town sheriff. This work is perhaps one of Figueroa’s most patriotic and picturesque. The film series continues through October 11.

Gabriel Figueroa, Film still from María Candelaria, directed by Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, 1944, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Gabriel Figueroa, film still from María Candelaria, directed by Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, 1944, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

John Divola: As Far as I Could Get is the first solo museum display from the Southern California–based photographer, painter, and conceptual artist. The exhibition opens this Sunday (Member Previews begin on Saturday, October 5) and showcases Polaroid images of sculptured objects, serial works, and conceptual landscapes in which the artist makes “walk-on” appearances. Elsewhere, Princely Traditions and Colonial Pursuits in India explores the complex visual history of English influence in India. In Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet see the pioneering avant-garde spirit of the Japanese poet-artist Kitasono Katue (1902–1978) as embodied by his magazine and poetry book designs and photographs. Contemporary works to look out for while on campus include the blockbuster James Turrell: A Retrospective and the intriguing Little Boxes: Photography and the Suburbs.

John Divola, As Far As I Could Get (R02F06), 1996–7, © John Divola

John Divola, As Far as I Could Get (R02F06), 1996–7, © John Divola

The Altadena Art+Film Lab at Charles White Park enters its second-to-the-last weekend of free programs and activities for the community. Visit the mobile art lab to share and record your personal stories on Friday and Saturday sessions of Oral History Drop-ins, a Mini-Docs Workshop on Saturday, and a Composition Workshop on Sunday. From novices to experts, these filmmaking sessions are open to all. On the outdoor big screen you’ll be treated to the The Wiz on Friday evening at 8 pm and The Iran Job on Saturday at 8 pm. The Wiz is adaptation of the smash Broadway musical, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. In The Iran Job, a 2012 documentary, a basketball player from the U.S. Virgin Islands tries to make it in the professional Iranian league while navigating a new culture.

Jazz at LACMA rounds the corner into autumn with a special double-bill concert as part of the Angel City Arts Jazz Festival. First, to open the night, the winning ensemble from last year’s Angel City Jazz Young Artists Competition. Then in the second set see the Nicole Mitchell Sundial Ensemble, with Nicole Mitchell on the flute. The evening of music begins at 6 pm on Friday. Later, on Sunday at 6 pm, Sundays Live bring pianist Petronel Malan to the Bing Theater. With three Grammy nods under her belt, including Best Instrumental Solo Album, Petronel’s style is as distinct as it is lustrous. Lastly, at Andell Family Sundays this month, kids and their parents learn more about the images, landscapes, and people of Mexico in our free weekly art-making workshop drawing inspiration from Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film. The workshop takes place from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm and is free with museum admission.

Roberto Ayala


The Poet Designer

October 2, 2013

If you were to search on Google the phrase Japanese graphic design, itʼs likely that you would uncover Tadanori Yokooʼs extraordinary visual exuberance or Shigeo Fukudaʼs bold satirical clarity. It would take additional digging on the web to discover any of the poetry books designed by Kitasono Katue. Kitasono (1902–1978) was a designer, writer, editor, photographer, and overall ambassador of Japanese avant-garde art to Europe and the Americas in the mid-20th century.

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Kitasono Katue, VOU magazine, number 143, August 1974, collection of John Solt

Kitasono remains a relatively unknown figure in the history of graphic design, despite having generated an incredible body of work. One explanation for this could be that many design historians simply categorize him more as a writer and poet rather than as a designer. Another likely reason is that popular graphic design history tends to overlook work coming from Japan between 1900 and 1960. Given the expansion of roles that designers take on these days—many work as editors, curators, writers, filmmakers, and shopkeepers—Kitasono is more important than ever. Kitasono’s life and work offers context to the varying design practices happening today.

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Kitasono Katue, VOU magazine, number 146, June 1975, collection of John Solt

It would be naive to speculate about Kitasonoʼs practice without acknowledging the events and conditions he was operating and reacting against: the simple fact of geography, Japanʼs neutrality in World War I, and the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1, 1923. All these circumstances contributed to why Japanese artists and writers (like Kitasono) had a tendency to translate, interpret, misinterpret, and borrow concepts of the European avant-garde (such as Futurism, Dada, or Surrealism) very differently from their Western counterparts.

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Kitasono Katue, VOU magazine, number 110, collection of John Solt

While itʼs clear that Surrealism appealed to Kitasonoʼs later imagery that juxtaposed objects, ideas rooted in Dada gave Kitasono an opportunity to reshape his creativity. Dadaʼs direct influence can been seen in Kitasonoʼs involvement with Japanʼs first Dadaist magazine, Ge.Gjmgjgam.Prrr.Gjmgem, published from 1924 to early 1926. The magazine, which highlighted the intricacy and absurdity of modern life, and Kitasono’s affiliation with young Japanese poets allowed the artist to broaden his inventiveness to include katakana words (Japanese syllables), scripts, signs, Arabic numerals, arrows, dots, and various types of lines into his poems.

Kitasono’s participation with G.G.P.G. initiated his interest in Surrealism. In 1935 principles from both Dada and Surrealism merged when he established the VOU Club and its avant-garde poetry journal, VOU. Vou, which was more or less Kitasonoʼs version of the word Dada, was meant to be an “empty” word in which a revolving group of poets, artists, composers, and architects were invited to define its meaning. Among Kitasonoʼs most interesting works in VOU were his (Surrealist-inspired) Plastic Poems, which were juxtapositions of fragmented bits of waste. Kitasono also served as the the editor and primary graphic designer for the publication.

VOU, published 1935–40 and 1949–78, was undoubtedly produced under budgetary constraints. The magazine varied in format, but never echoed the spirited typographic spontaneity of many other Dada-inspired publications. Looking at issues of VOU, it’s hard to believe how sophisticated, simple, and personal the magazine feels. Even as typographic trends changed throughout the 20th century, issues of VOU never seemed to adopt a strict grid, but rather always embraced the poet-designer’s intuition and personal balance.

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Kitasono Katue, Forgotten Man, 1975, © Sumiko Hashimoto, collection of John Solt

Aesthetics aside, an immensely interesting part of VOUʼs existence was its distribution. A chapter in John Soltʼs Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue, brilliantly titled “Kit Kat and Ez Po,” details the respectful yet peculiar friendship between Kitasono and Ezra Pound. Not only does this section show how ideas circulated pre-Internet, but just how divergent philosophies regarding avant-garde art and writings were from East to West. VOU was Kitasono’s most consistent body of work as a designer, but he designed numerous books, most notably The Album of Whiteness (1929) and Black Fire (1951), book covers, journals, publications, advertisements: all while holding a day job as head librarian at the Nihon Shika Daigaku (Japanʼs dental college). The majority of these other materials have a sense of restraint, but plenty of imagination. Many of the colors and freely invented organic shapes Kitasono employed definitely echo the playful work of American designers Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, and Alex Steinweiss.

Kitasono may have been overlooked or underrated as a graphic designer, but his textured life, wandering mind, and abundant enthusiasm for creating is as relevant as ever for present-day graphic designers to observe. Notwithstanding the wonderful work in the exhibition, the best part of Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet proves that not everything is in the history books or easily “Googleable.”

David Karwan, graphic designer


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