The Uses of Myth | Spectral Grounds: Black Experimental Film

by Maria Paradinas

Spectral Grounds is a new cross-continental collaboration between Culture Art Society (CAS), an interdisciplinary curatorial platform operating between London and Denmark, and Monangambee, a Lagos based microcinema. Both organisations work with artists and filmmakers from Africa and its diaspora. 

Designed as a website, the programme hosts constellations of moving-image works, (contemporary and archival, in video and analog formats) loosely clustered around certain themes. Those themes are “Labour, History, Territory and the Mind—four core rubrics of Western metaphysics that legitimise existence in an antiblack world”. It is also host to extra-textual thoughts in the form of material and audio recordings of poetry, prose and essays. 

Not all featured works are formally experimental, but presented as experimental ontologically: the landing page of the website bears a curatorial statement that calls this practice “part of an endless repertoire and arsenal of Black survival.”

Myth re-emerges throughout Spectral Grounds. It is invoked, called into question, and luxuriated in.

The Season of Burning Things (Asmaa Jama & Gouled Abdishakour Ahmed, 2021)

The Season of Burning Things (2021), dir. Asmaa Jama and Gouled Abdishakour Ahmed, opens with a pale blue oval pool. The gently stirring waters bear silhouetted reflections: of leaves from a tree above, and the shape of a figure. A palm is inked with black, and a young woman smiles through a glittering veil. The captions are immediately monumental: 

“Once we were made of gilt, we were worshipped, small deities, they called us soft carbon, and meant the alight ones”.

Rough video-tape home movie footage shows what looks like a family party: a group of people sitting, singing and clapping in a crowded room, as the wide shot closes in on two women. The captions tell of an apocalypse:

“When the world ended the first time, it was swallowed by water” 

Women sing into microphones on stage, waves lap against a chalky lighthouse.  

“We fled to an elsewhere / Palms like portals we changed in the water”

The voiceover speaks gently: 

“We left, we fled, we came to another realm / And found ourselves, palms empty, alone, unwanted.” 

A model walks down the runway adorned in gold, arms upturned, swaying sinuously.  

“We burnt up like kerosene” 

Amniotic sound gurgles as a veiled woman stares through flames. 

The work speaks of endings and beginnings, apocalypse and creation. Here myth acts as cultural grounding, qualifying the deconstructions and reconstructions that identity undergoes as it enters the diaspora. Locating the transient body within the body politic, it is used to give birth to oneself. 

Dead as a Dodo (Leena Habiballa, 2022)

Scrolling down in the programme sits Dead as a Dodo (2022) dir. by Leena Habiballa. I met Leena earlier this year at Another Gaze’s film critics workshop, and this is the first time I’ve encountered her work. 

The film is entirely composed of stills: 17th and 18th century illustrations of the dodo, intricate portraits of its squat, feathered form, ships bearing the Prince’s flag on misty waters approaching a beach. The narrator reads an excerpt from Zaina Alsous:

“One morning a charred ink line / in the botanist’s notebook”.

A map of Mauritius, the dodo in fantastical, rich, populated landscapes, sketches of its skeleton, a British paper with the tagline – “Society for the diffusion of useful knowledge”, all fill the screen in quick succession.  

If until this point violence had been inexplicit, now it asserts itself emphatically. Images of the dodo take on a darker edge: dry grisly beaks of museum specimens; bones laid out crudely in museum cases, drawings in children’s books.  

The music changes suddenly to clattering jazz horns – it is Pharaoh Sanders’ “Red, Black and Green”, but in this setting the clamour underscores the violence of the images. Text cropped from scanned books states:

“His soldiers daily killed number of them, without regret”

Then come severe portraits of Europeans wearing ruffs; overlaid text brands them “brave old voyagers”. The dodo alternately characterised as infantile, sluggard, foolish, simple. The dodo squats on a children’s carousel in Paris, and appears in cartoons in exaggerated forms, living on as a figure of humour and ridicule. 

“Who has the authority to produce knowledge? Who has the authority to tell the story of a place and its inhabitants”

In this work the dodo itself is mythic. A legend that only exists in reports, magazines, illustrations and articles. Even then, these presentations are entrenched with classifications about its usefulness, attractiveness and intelligence. As this material is all that survives, how much of knowledge is myth?

Indeed “The carcass is the canvas” on which to etch ideologies – the dead cannot speak for themselves. Here, myth is used to call into question historicity and collective memory. 

Cavity (Arielle Tai, 2019)

Further down the programme sits Cavity (2019) dir. Arielle Tai, a video collage of film and TV clips. The images are fluorescent, as if they had passed through a radioactive prism. The sound provides an equally unsettling collage – a slowed pop song overlaid with strings. 

Aaliyah as Akasha in Queen of the Damned (2002) reveals a pointed tooth, Grace Jones as Katrina in Vamp (1986) flashes a milky iris, Kerry Washington appears as Olivia Pope – her face spattered with blood. 

The voiceover speaks in discordance with the images:

“Who’s out there working for me, carrying my burden, building me up when I get down? Nobody” 

The vampire, the monster, the murderous woman. Here myth provides an archetype, an extrapolation of an aspect of the self that ends up in the monstrous or magical. In light of the narrative voice that speaks of profound hurt and rage, these fictions provide a conduit for which to explore fantasies of extreme and otherworldly power, processing and transforming pain. 

Myth reappears in this programme of shorts to different ends. As a compass to orient those searching, a weighty fortification to bolster ideologies, and provide archetypes to be invoked, embodied and purged.

Maria Paradinas is an archive researcher and film programmer from London. She is interested in the politics of archival practice as it relates to histories that have been destroyed, mis-recorded or obscured. 

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