Reflections on the BIPOC Experimental Animation Program
BIPOC Experimental Animation Program, Curated by Carrie Hawks
Rainbow Body, Chitra Ganesh
In Tibetan Buddhist terms, “rainbow body” refers to a state of elevated consciousness upon attaining complete knowledge, marked by a rapturous sensation of light and color. The concept finds expression in Chitra Ganesh’s 2018 psychedelic piece of the same name—one of eight films selected by curator Carrie Hawks for this year’s Experimental Animation category—but may as well describe the prismatic magic of the program as a whole. Including directors from Japan to Ethiopia, New York to Nairobi, and presented in at least six different languages, the program navigates questions of identity, loss, and legacy through a range of voices and visual vocabularies. What does it mean, these films seek to ask, to tell these stories through light and color? How might our own consciousness expand in the midst of such mastery?
In keeping with their own potent, yet often playful, investigations of gender, sexuality, and race, Hawks’s selection of animated films is by turns trippy and transcendent, quirky and sincere. Sumo-like little boys befriend a group of deer; a woman at a desk in the Canadian frontier is gifted a glittery apple; a miniature old man figurine scolds his grandson for not picking up the phone.
Yellow Fever, Ng’endo Mukii
“My Sister is chocolate, I am toffee,” shares the narrator of Ng’endo Mukii’s vibrant mixed-media film Yellow Fever (2018), a meditation on skin-bleaching and global beauty standards, specifically as directed women on the African subcontinent. Edited between stop-motion illustrations depicting the narrator’s upbringing in Kenya, extreme close-ups direct our attention to the skin of a Black modern dancer, her muscles contracting with her sharp, erratic movements. In a surreal twist, the “coarse weave of my mother’s carpet” becomes discarded women’s hair weave. “They would put these creams on little babies,” says one woman in voice-over, evincing the extremes taken to take on a more white complexion. In a more subtle nod to white imperialism, the narrator’s perky young niece wears a pink tee with the Eiffel Tower stitched onto the chest.
Mom’s Clothes, Jordan Wong
The implications of fashion and self-adornment are more a central theme, and aesthetic focus, for Jordan Wong’s 2018 Mom’s Clothes, which provides a stirring account of coming out of the closet—literally and figuratively. Comprised of a dizzying series of conventionally feminine textile patterns set before the lens—leopard spots, polka dots, floral wool, pink knit, and more—the film reflects on queerness through the guise of gendered dress. “Loneliness is really part of your brand right now,” the artist self-deprecates cheekily. “You really liked trying on Mom’s clothes, the kind that drapes all over your shins and makes you a formless blob when you dance around.”
World Within, Sakshi Jain
Sakshi Jain’s 2019 World Within climbs the limbs of the family tree in a more existential vein, mingling spare hand drawings with lines of poetry composed by the filmmaker’s father and grandfather. “It was fun, shaping you, forming you, into something,” Jain recounts calmly, as a female form grows out of a thread pulled from the side of a mountain. Across this lyrical rumination on the limits of linear perspective and the power of filial loyalty, Jain’s heroine saunters through the scribbled prairie, holding a small bird in her hands. “Try to peek inside. Maybe you get an estimate of your own depth.”
Day of Nose, Atsushi Wada
In a more irreverent turn, Atsushi Wada’s 2005 Day of Nose revels in the delightfully absurd; three nameless, pudgy, shirtless young men huddle and whisper while reading a manual. A turtle and frog somersault over each other, the latter becoming anthropomorphic and doubling into twin green figures caressing a snail that is eaten by a crow. One of the boys ultimately waves his tee-shirt over his head, followed by a herd of reindeer. William Caballero’s 2015 How You Doin’, Boy? Voicemails from Gran’pa carries an even more lighthearted tone, playfully poking fun at the very candid voice messages left by the director’s Puerto Rican grandfather. “Hello, Mr. Caballero. You know what I tell you…,” his “Gran’pa” chides, assuming the form of a hand-painted figurine popping up on tabletops, bookshelves, and toilet seats. “Davy, Davy, pick up the phone! I call you many times and you don’t pick up the phone!” While the film overall is undoubtedly funny, it clearly pays tribute to the genuine concern of this elderly man for his busy, Millennial grandson, presenting the voice message as a kind of precious archive.
How You Doin’, Boy? Voicemails from Gran’pa, William Caballero
Yene Fikir, Ethiopia (My Love, Ethiopia), Gabrielle Tesfaye
Gabrielle Tesfaye’s 2019 Yene Fikir, Ethiopia (My Love, Ethiopia) is the longest and arguably most overtly political of the program, set during the Red Terror war in 1970s Ethiopia. Live-action shots of children running barefoot through caves, cats peeking out of plaster crannies, and camels roving across the sand segue into sumptuous illustrations. A rooster crows in a stop-motion tableau of wind chimes and a top-hatted bearded man; a floating key unlocks what appears to be a minaret, a woman strumming a lute inside. Roasting coffee beans and pouring cups of steaming brew, a family ignores a news show on the television set. The country’s leader has been assassinated, and here the director shifts to documentary footage of the funeral parade. The political and economic crises that will soon befall the land are set against a gilded animated dreamscape of gods and goddesses, to suddenly shift into armed soldiers seizing a city. Tesfaye takes us on a journey that merges the mythical with the political, the imagination with lived history. We see our heroine float down the Nile in a gondola shaped like a seahorse—or is it a luck dragon? The watercolor sky gleams behind her.
Four Faces of the Moon, Amanda Strong
Amanda Strong’s 2016 Four Faces of the Moon shares a similar visual splendor in excavating the past, exposing the crimes of Canada’s colonial history. A wondrous masterwork of stop-motion puppetry, Four Faces follows a photographer tracing her ancestry to the oral and written history of the Métis, Cree, and Anishnaabe People. “My name is not a sin,” we hear in French before the narration shifts to indigenous voiceover. The extermination of the buffalo serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the horrors of westward expansion—of whiteness emboldened to the nth degree by ignorance and greed.
“I wanted you to be something that the eyes never saw,” says Jain’s narrator in World Within. Hawks curates a program that never flinches from the brutalities endured by the Black, the indigenous, and people of color, but equally celebrates the capacity to not only survive but create, to not only create but experiment in radically fresh, subversive ways.
Eileen G’Sell’s cultural criticism, essays, and poetry can be found in Salon, VICE, the Boston Review, Hyperallergic, DAME, and DIAGRAM among others. Her chapbooks are available from Dancing Girl and BOAAT Press, and her debut poetry collection Life After Rugby is available from Gold Wake Press. She currently teaches composition and film at Washington University, and creative writing for the Prison Education Project at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center.