“Critical Curation:” The Role of Curators in Creating Spaces for Black Cinema

Curations Erin Christovale and Maori Karmael Holmes speak at the UCSD Visual Art Department’s 'Critical Curation.' / Photo courtesy of Hannah Eskelson.

Curators Erin Christovale and Maori Karmael Holmes discussed the importance of Black cinema, art, and their roles as curators in creating avenues for Black cinema on Oct. 26. The event, “Critical Curation: A Conversation with Erin Christovale and Maori Karmael Holmes” took place in the Visual Arts Facility Performance Space and was organized by the UCSD Department of Visual Arts, the Black Studies Project, and SPACES. There was a screening of three short films accompanied by a discussion with the curators. Erica Cho, Assistant Professor of Narrative Media at UCSD, introduced the curators and co-facilitated the dialogue with her colleague Nicole Miller.

Erin Christovale is an Assistant Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and is also the co-founder of Black Radical Imagination, an organization emphasizing experimental film and the imagination for Afro-Futurism. Black Radical Imagination works globally with several institutions to give artists a platform to create experimental films centered around Black culture. A description from the organization’s website states, “Black Radical Imagination is a touring program of visual shorts that delve into the worlds of new media, video art, and experimental narrative…each artist contributes their own vision about post-modern society through the state of current black culture.” Two of the films shown were made by artists who participated in Black Radical Imagination workshops.

Maori Karmael Holmes is the founder of the BlackStar Film Festival, which has been held every August since 2012. According to the festival’s website, “The BlackStar Film Festival is an annual celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and of global indigenous communities, showcasing films by black people from around the world.” Holmes uses her platform as a curator of the BlackStar Film Festival to highlight Black cinema and give a platform to artists that may otherwise be totally disregarded in “traditional” art spaces.   

These dedicated curators use their agency to promote the brilliance of Black cinema and to celebrate Black artistic expression via film.

The three films shown at this event were “Many Thousands Gone”, “An Ecstatic Experience”, and “To Be Free”.

“Many Thousands Gone,” directed by Ephraim Asili in 2014, is filmed in 16mm and captures scenes of everyday life from Salvador, Brazil and Harlem, New York. A sound score produced by Joe McPhee adds an eerie array of flutes, chatter, and whispers. These sounds allude to the title of “Many Thousands Gone,” an acknowledgment of the many slaves that died en route to the Americas. Asili worked with Black Radical Imagination throughout the filmmaking process.

The second film shown, “An Ecstatic Experience,” was directed by Ja’Tovia Gary in 2015. It is a montage of found film of poet and civil rights activist Ruby Dee and scenes of people protesting police brutality. The film includes moments of catharsis that highlight how the “spirit” can oftentimes be used to navigate traumatic and painful experiences. Ja’Tovia worked with Black Radical Imagination and later showed her film at the BlackStar Film Festival. The film was eventually acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Finally, “To Be Free,” directed by Adepero Oduye in 2017, is a beautifully shot black and white film that depicts Nina Simone in a temporary moment of ecstasy as she performs at a nightclub. Nina briefly departs from reality as her body jabs at each drum beat, transforming herself into something else, free of pain. This scene strongly contrasts the film’s final scene:  Nina sitting with her head supported by her hand loosely holding a cigarette. The audience is left with a sense of uncomfortable emptiness. Nina Simone is played by the director, Adepero Oduye, who does an exceptional job capturing the moment in which Nina feels most free. Oduye showed her film at the BlackStar Film Festival.

Erin Christovale and Maori Karmael Holmes’ dedication to showcasing Black cinema and art is a testament to the need for people of color in art spaces . They use their role as curators to further support these artists through organizations like Black Radical Imagination and the BlackStar Film Festival. Christovale and Holmes left me with a revolutionary takeaway: if the space is not given, then let us make it ourselves… just as these women have done.

Benjamin Lomeli Jr. is a staff writer in the Arts and Entertainment section of The Triton.