PODCAST — Episode 13, recorded
Rhea Dillon in conversation with BFMAF programmer Myriam Mouflih about the film ‘The Name I Call Myself’.→
Rhea Dillon (based in London) is an artist, writer and poet. Using video, installation, images, painting and olfaction, she examines and abstracts her intrigue of the “rules of representation” as a device to undermine contemporary Western culture. She is particularly interested in the self-coined phrase ‘Humane Afrofuturism’ as a practice of bringing forward the humane and equality-led perspectives on how we visualise Black bodies. Her work has been featured at a number of art and film institutions internationally, including The British Film Institute, 198 Gallery, Somerset House, Mimosa House, Blank 100 (London); Red Hook Labs, Aperture Gallery (New York); Red Bull Film Festival (Los Angeles); Sanam Archive (Accra, Ghana). She is an Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins (London) and the co-founder and curator of ‘Building The Archive: Thinking Through Cultural Expression’, a talk series that celebrates Black creative practitioners and their contributions to visual culture within arts and design higher education.
Myriam Mouflih is a film programmer and sometimes writer from Glasgow, UK. Her research has focused predominantly on Artists Moving Image from the African continent and the diaspora. Since 2017, Myriam has programmed for Africa in Motion Film Festival and served on the committee of Transmission Gallery from 2018-2020. She is also a member of the LUX Scotland Advisory group and was on the jury for the Margaret Tait Award 2020/21.
Hi. Welcome to the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. My name’s Myriam, and I’m on the programming team for the festival this year. Today, I’m in conversation with Rhea Dillon, whose film, The Name I Call Myself, is screening as part of the Berwick New Cinema competition. Rhea Dillon is a filmmaker and artist based in London, and this is the festival premier of The Name I Call Myself. I was kind of astounded that it was your graduate project. I feel like it’s such a strong, developed work. It feels like very much your voice, and very much like you’ve already got this language.
Yeah. Like you said, it was my final project for uni, so I guess I came to it out of both necessity for a place of leaving a space, and also a necessity of addressing questions in my mind in regards to just my existence period. I guess the questions that led to the piece itself were kind of a culmination of thinking around how I exist here, being a diaspora child, and what it means to continue on. So, the questions I was asking myself like, “Before you leave your house, you should address what’s going on at home,” that kind of phrase. I was thinking about the Black community and the Black British community, looking through and researching to reference Black British artists and Black British theorists, and every time I was just going even into just a section on the diaspora, specifically the Black diaspora, it would always be like, “Born and raised in Harlem, this person did this.” We didn’t necessarily have the same documentations of Black history that have been so beautifully documented by the period of time which is the Harlem Renaissance, and even thinking about the Haitian Revolution.
I was quite literally confronted by that, because every time I’d try and pick up a book, it would never really start with the diaspora that I looked through. I guess the need personally to create this archive that hasn’t been very well shared, and I think that that’s something that perhaps gets missed in regard to talking about the archives, that the archive isn’t actually just there to be a store. It’s there to be a resource.
There was another archive that’s actually held in Chelsea College, and it’s ephemera archive on African and Asian art in Britain, but you have to go on a Wednesday at 1:00 and be watched over by this guy, and then the restraint to even be within that space and the work is just so infuriating. So, I think for moving and video and film, they are something that we engage with on such an everyday level, so to approach archiving moving visuals is quite a natural way to engage with the public.
Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting point about archives and the purpose of them, who they serve and who they’re for. And I think so much of a difficulty is a difficulty for, especially people of the diaspora, not being able to access that history, kind of like what you were saying. And I think it also sometimes makes people feel like they’re starting from scratch. It’s like an erasure of all the work that’s come before, and also just thinking about the resource that it takes to fund and nourish archives, too.
It’s actually incredibly frustrating and really, it’s quite emotional to have to go through it every time. And like you said, you do feel like you’re going through it from scratch. And sometimes, even just the façade, it’s very much like how I think museums try engaging with the general public, just the quite literal façade, like the crossing of the threshold to get in can be really difficult sometimes. And I faced that with archives that are meant to be for me, by us. Yeah, it’s emotional doing that and understanding that your being was essentially meant to be erased from history.
Yeah. And then, I guess my next question then would be, do you consider your practice as an archival practice, archiving a community or a moment maybe?
I would necessarily consider my practice being an archival practice, but I think I put great emphasis on just the existence, like the documented existence of Blackness being really important to every aspect of my practice, whether that’s the video, or the painting. I always say to people, “Get your friend to photograph you while you’re on set and just have them file them and just have it there.” I think it’s a feat to take it upon yourself to remind yourself of how valued it is for you to even find people like you in the archive, and then remember, “Oh, people in the future …” It’s quite a radical thought. Black radical futures is a title that exists, and it exists for a reason, because of the past and the present that we’re having to live through, and that there’s such a chase and almost a demand for Black lives to not exist. So, it’s such a radical necessity to remind yourself that you in the future would, could, and should be something to behold, I guess.
Yeah. I read an interview you did where you’re talking about Kerry James Marshall, Arthur Jafa, Grace Wales Bonner, elevating Black people in an everyday sense. I wonder if you could talk about that?
Yeah. That was, again, for graduating. Obviously, you had to write a dissertation. I started talking through this term that I had, which is humane Afrofuturism. I see that as kind of a bringing us back to the root of what Afrofuturism could and should mean, which is the practice of allowing Blackness to just exist and not be made into an object, and not be made into this out-of-this-world being, because that re-alienates the Black body, which is how society already now perceives it, I think. So for me, it was trying to think of how and think through the work that others have already done that really roots ourselves just in the mundane, in the everyday. So, that’s where the humane aspect of that came from. There’s such a, again, a desire for the Black body and a history of the Black body not being allowed to be a human, as being an object, being a piece of labour.
Kerry James Marshall is someone who really, without necessarily stating it, just puts Blackness in the everyday sense. He’s got that really beautiful diptych of Black kids at the museum, and it’s kind of like a mirror in the middle. You can kind of see them looking. And it really does look like a British museum. It’s just kids and Black people in a museum, and just thinking further, why am I so astounded by this? It’s because we don’t get to see Blackness in this everyday visual. And thinking about, again, how we receive and engage with culture is oftentimes most through video, most through films, and most through cinema. That often encapsulates typecasting and stereotypes.
I remember at the time, part of my research, I was just asking friends, “What is your version of Black British cinema?” And the best, the furthest people could get to for me was Kidulthood, Adulthood, and like Attack the Block. They’re all the same stereotype of Blackness. People didn’t even go as far as Steve McQueen’s Widows, which in terms of just having Black characters in films that aren’t essentially linked to a violence. Could we exist outside of that space? There’s something, actually, that Arthur Jafa had said, a lot of people think African-American cinema starts with Spike Lee, but I think they think that because that’s the first time that they got to see themselves just be themselves in, again, the humane, the everyday. And I can’t say that that’s the same for British cinema. And then, cinema is obviously something that is to be engaged on a mass scale and by a mass audience, so oftentimes, it’s a very, very diluted version of reality, or a hyper version of reality in either way.
Yeah. I was wondering if you could talk about the influence of Audre Lorde on your work. You mentioned in things I’ve read about W.E.B. Du Bois. I was wondering if you could talk about those influences on your work, especially, I guess, if we’re thinking about this thing of where our references come from, this thing of British context and American context maybe being quite different, but also that doesn’t negate the importance of those works either.
Yeah. I mean, I was part of a collective called BBZ, which stands for bold, brazen zamis. And zami also there comes from the title of Audre Lorde’s book, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. When I read that book, it was the first time I’d come across, I guess, Black lesbian literature. It’s a biomythography, if I pronounced that right, which I also quite love, because again, it’s just in reference to the need, the absolute need for Black radical imagination. With Audre Lorde, that book was just an incredible space to hold with someone who really, I guess, was a reflection in terms of just how they live and how they love.
And then, Du Bois, the double consciousness, again, coming across that term and understanding, even with the piece itself, how it’s got two screens. The two screens are in reference to that. I’m also giving you the experience that I have with this Black and British with all of these times that we have to be double-titled, or Black queer, or Black British queer. Every time you have to fill out a form, there’s always two words minimum to exist within, which very much aligns to the double conscious theory, I’d say.
I guess the installation of your work being like a two-channel installation with a fragrance accompaniment as well, if I think about that fragrance, it feels like maybe another time or something, where people are constantly in motion and there’s this to and fro. It makes me think of James Baldwin in Paris, or something. But yeah, I guess I was just wondering if you could talk about the scent. How that came about, and also why you wanted to do that.
Yeah. Olfaction is really intriguing to me, because I guess speaking through the archives, speaking through memory, speaking through histories that haven’t been told is another form of access that I think just adds another really emotive layer, and scent is kind of … It’s the scent that’s most lined to memory. It’s very direct and it’s very automatic. I wanted to incorporate that, to kind of bring it into, like you said, it is an installation with the dual screen and having the scent around to kind of think about the perceived memory that those more heady scents bring, like the vetiver and the cedarwood that’s in there. I’m trying to think of how I could reconfigure the minds of the audience to when they engage with a violet in real life, which is another note in the fragrance, that they’ll then be imbued with this visual and these visuals of Black queer happiness, instead of the perceptions of a negative kind, what has been prescribed by the current society that we live in, unfortunately.
I’m essentially just trying to really control people’s minds with that one. But I think it’s good to not just think about the scents and the times that have been, but also how you can create new futures and new formulations of thinking.
Yeah. That’s super interesting. I guess I was also just thinking about this thing of Zami and biomythography, imagining and what imagining can do, but also not having to give away the full self or the full story, and that things can be kind of cloaked in imagination and in dreaming something else.
I think I approach things via an abstract mode of thought. For me, good art is still thinking for itself. When I engage with work that I really enjoy, thinking about another great Black British filmmaker, John Akomfrah’s work, there is nothing being directly spoken, there’s only things that can be thought through in engagement with that work. I don’t believe in the artist as being the one with all the answers. I believe it’s the artist being more someone that you can engage with to finding clues to how you get to a new frame of mind. Questions are such a big part of how I approach my work, and I have a lot of questions all the time. Yeah, I think that I’m a very inquisitive person, and I approach that through an abstract language.
That maybe feels like a nice note to end on. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me.
No, it was cool.