Still from AS TOLD TO G/D THYSELF, The Ummah Chroma (2019)

Jenn Nkiru's art is an introduction to cosmic archeology

The British-Nigerian filmmaker creates visual representations of the black experience unlike anything you've ever seen.

by Rolien Zonneveld
31 January 2020, 10:37am

Still from AS TOLD TO G/D THYSELF, The Ummah Chroma (2019)

A lone saxophonist wanders through a black-and-white industrial cityscape. The houses in the background seem weathered, the music is a soft mixture of jazz and soul, tinged by hip-hop. The person playing the sax is Kamasi Washington, an American composer and artist who’s been making waves with his genre-defying, improvisational music. The scene is part of AS TOLD TO G/D THYSELF, a 22 minute short film perhaps best described as a prolonged music video, comprising a sequence of immersive fragments that at first glance don’t quite seem to link up.

It first screened at Sundance last year, and is currently on display at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, as part of the city’s annual international film festival. Predominantly shot in Baltimore, the film depicts a cosmic journey through themes including meta-physical transcendence, spirituality, and self-expression. This translates to scenes of mythical rituals in forests, alongside surreal street shots of fluorescent dogs -- combined, they evoke a sense of deep foreboding.

The film came about when Kamasi wanted to create visuals for his new album and decided to reach out to some of the most exciting visual artists of the moment: cinematographer Bradford Young (known for his award winning work on Arrival), editor Marc Thomas (praised for his debut Black America Again), director Terence Nance (known for the engaging tv series Random Acts of Flyness), and Jenn Nkiru (who worked on Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s "Apeshit"). Inspired by how organic the collaboration felt, they decided to form a collective, The Ummah Chroma, or ‘Community of Colour’.

Peckham based Jenn Nkiru is the only Brit in the collective -- and the only woman, for that matter -- and is on site in Rotterdam to give a masterclass. “If I were to describe how this project came together, I would say we were making jazz,” she explains. “Process-wise we really mirrored Kamasi’s record. We became like a band, with each of us playing a part and complementing each other.” Despite how ‘free floating’ this may sound, however, Jenn is quick to point out that the collective’s objective is quite the opposite. “Ummah Chroma has a focussed mission,” Jenn says, “and that is that we want to create visual representations of the black experience that we haven’t really seen before. In our own respective ways, we explore ideas of transcendence, spirituality and the interior.”

Jenn first broke into the industry at the tender age of 15, when her surrealist short film about a fallen alien was commissioned by the BBC and the Tate. It marked the beginning of a career in film always coloured by the supernatural -- which, over time, invited critics to identify her work as Afrofuturist. “I don’t care much about labels but if I were to attach a genre to my work, I would say it leans more towards Afro-surrealism.” The genre -- which allows black artists to express feelings of worry, liberty and injustice through a lens that’s as liberated from orthodoxy as they like -- has been experiencing something of a revival as of late. Take Donald Glover’s Atlanta for example, or work by filmmakers Khalil Joseph and Arthur Jafa, who have given a dream-like edge to the music of Kendrick Lamar and Solange respectively.

Jenn’s work is an associative patchwork of fragments from various sources: whether from pop culture, philosophy and academia, or from the history of black music, the black arts movement and cinemas of the black diaspora. “My dreams and everyday experiences also play a role in my work,” she adds. “In Nigeria, which is my heritage, they play a big role in society.” It's one of the reasons she refers to her approach as ‘cosmic archeology’, a term which might sound vague at first, but makes sense when you start to unpack it. It has to do with the idea that the memories we all harbour could collectively form a sort of cosmic energy -- like layers upon layers of mutual impressions, knowledge, ideas and experiences that can be excavated. Given the vast nature of her subject matter, the way she approaches her practice is incredibly fluid and differs each time. “I would say my approach is a combination of reclamation and creation -- it’s not necessarily that I divorce myself from existing tropes but it’s more that I don’t place them in the cinematic schemes we're familiar with.” A good example of this is the image of Beyoncé and Jay-Z standing in front of the Mona Lisa in Apeshit, for which Jenn was the second unit director. It symbolises how two people of colour insert themselves into what traditionally would be viewed a white museum space.

“I would never call myself a cinephile, but for me, cinema has proven to be the perfect incubator for all my different interests and ideas,” she continues. Take one of her recent projects, Black to Techno, for example: delving into the origins of techno music in Detroit’s black community in the 1980s, it links the city’s former automobile industry with the mechanical sound adopted by DJs all around the world. By tracing techno’s rich history -- rather than merely citing Berlin as its birthplace -- the film unearthed the genre’s foundation as a historically black sound. “Finding out that Berlin and Detroit are in fact sister cities really added to the idea of universal connection I find fascinating,” Jenn adds.

It’s almost not surprising when someone at the museum tells us that Baltimore and Rotterdam are in fact sister cities, too. As it turns out, Rotterdam’s central city district was destroyed at the beginning of World War II, and, faced with the task of rebuilding the city, chose to embrace the future rather than resurrect the past. Similarly, the city centre of Baltimore was destroyed in 1904 by the Great Fire, and rebuilt from the ground up. In its wake, both have become modern cities with diverse populations -- bringing along both opportunities and issues. “It’s wild, isn’t it?” Jenn says. “I find it so intriguing how similar historical circumstances bring rise to these shared political and social ideas.”

Accompanying the film’s screening, the museum will have the collective’s first ever installation G/D THYSELF: Spirit Strategy On Raising Free Black Children on display: a space of almost one hundred square meters where visitors are invited to perform what the collective calls ‘spirit strategies’, contemplative rituals in the form of prayer, performances and dance. It asks the visitor to consider existential themes out loud: who are we and what is our part in this story?

The installation G/D THYSELF: Spirit Strategy On Raising Free Black Children is on view at Het Nieuwe Instituut till June 28th, 2020.

jenn nkiru
The Ummah Chroma