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Jenn Nkiru: REBIRTH IS NECESSARY

Jenn Nkiru’s REBIRTH IS NECESSARY, 2017, was exhibited in the group show TRANSFORMER: A Rebirth of Wonder at London’s 180 The Strand from October to December 2019. In those last months before shows shut down globally – that time which now feels so sweet and viscous, in retrospect – Institute of Modern Art (IMA) Director Liz Nowell saw the Nigerian-British filmmaker’s work in the gallery space. The piece will be installed at the IMA from May as it was in London: “As an immersive two-channel installation, with blue carpeted walls, a scent diffused through the space and a vinyl text on to wall which reads ‘The Black ecstatic cannot be contained,’” Nowell tells me. 

This presentation of the work itself is a re-imagination – or, a rebirth – of Nkiru’s original version of the film. Back in 2017, Nkiru presented a single-channel iteration of the work with NOWNESS, the digital media screening platform founded by TRANSFORMER curator Jefferson Hack. Here, it appeared as part of the Black Star series, which showcased the work of rising directors “shar[ing] their vision of the future of the black experience on screen.” Nkiru is known for an open-access ethics when it comes to sharing her art; many of her films are available through online streaming services, for free. She encourages viewers to take what they want from them, both receptively and productively: to get their hands and their software into the work, to remix. 

This reflects her own methodology as a filmmaker. REBIRTH IS NECESSARY is an expansive, reparative engagement with the archive, unbound by tropes of temporal linearity, of loss and recovery, or of “(re)discovery” as a one-time event. Rather, Nkiru’s use of archival film and audio material echoes the sampling tactics of hip-hop music, but also the improvisatory, “elaborating” strategies of jazz, wherein pasts, presents, and creative futures are irreducible to, yet inextricable from, one another. In conversation with the liquid blackness research group of Georgia State University, the panel reflected that this sampling which had been so innovative for Black music in the twentieth century may well be doing the same for Black film in the twenty-first. The technical inheritance from music is also a personal one for Nkiru, who worked as a DJ during her time taking the MFA in Film at Howard University, from 2009. Much of Nkiru’s work visualises sonic cultures and cultural histories: Black to Techno, 2019, explores the rave culture of Detroit, and her Howard graduation project En Vogue, 2014, pictures New York’s ballroom scene, for example. She has also directed music videos for Kamasi Washington and Neneh Cherry, and was second unit director on Beyoncé and Jay-Z Carter’s APESHIT, 2018.

Structurally, REBIRTH IS NECESSARY is split into sections demarcated by intertitles and quotations from figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, Sun Ra, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde, which each obliquely set the tone for the few minutes of material they introduce. A section commencing about two minutes into the original single-channel work is called “the beginning.” Forty seconds after this title, a flash of archival footage shows “AFRICA IS THE BEGINNING” as writing on a building’s external wall: the beginning is multiple, ceaseless, everywhere, and the ironic placement of these announcements-of-commencement is emblematic of the way time works in the film. Archival material spanning the length of the twentieth century is spliced amongst reams and reams of original footage, the two kinds of image both cascading backwards and forwards as moments orbit around us. 

In this way, the movement of REBIRTH IS NECESSARY is both archaeological and speculative, and can have neither without the other. Given the sheer volume of archival video and audio that the film makes use of, it’s particularly notable that Nkiru personally sought permission to reproduce each historical element, rather than using a public or open-access archive. Her emphasis on feminist and queer histories, and on matrilineal passings-down of knowledge, is also of particular note, and this emphasis looks forward, too, being animated imaginatively in the film’s “new” footage. We see in this original footage, if we can catch it, an embrace between two fluid figures, their shoulders and necks bejewelled, a group of three women dancers in intricate headpieces, yelling, and women of the Nation of Islam performing a ritual exercise. 

Nkiru’s aesthetics of density is all-encompassing, and should relay to viewers the irreducible variety contained within the cultural practices she brings to the screen. Or, as Lorde has it in one of the film’s intertitles, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.” When we speak, I ask Nowell if REBIRTH IS NECESSARY will be in conversation with other works being shown concurrently at the IMA. Her answer is in keeping with Nkiru’s sensibility, and indeed with Lorde’s: she wants to resist “trying to create a narrative with other works or exhibitions which would predetermine its interpretation.” We speak about the lack of attention given to artists of the African diaspora in Australia – with a notable exception being that Nkiru’s peer at Howard University, Arthur Jafa, had work showing in Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, at the time of our conversation.

Somewhere in “the beginning” of the film, Baldwin gives an instruction: “You have to go the way your blood beats.” It’s important, in understanding how this film operates, to hold in mind that blood beats in many directions across and over the body. The rococo excess of Nkiru’s archive is so much of the work’s pleasure. This pleasure is important, and will be sensed even more wholly in the context of an immersive installation. It’s not too often that you want to get up during a bibliography and dance. The work brings together obsessive scholarship and irreducible joy; it will be a privilege to get wound up in its loops.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022

EXHIBITION 
Jenn Nkiru: REBIRTH IS NECESSARY  
14 May – 9 July 2022
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane 

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