by Laura Stiles
Curated by Alisha B. Wormsley and Blaine Siegel, “Afronaut(a) 2.0: An Exploration in Film” is a series featuring non-traditional films and art performances by local and national artists, including music, dance, and live painting. The series was originally inspired by experimental filmmaking in West Africa focused on the black diaspora, but has expanded to encompass all cultures, genders, interests, and disciplines of art. It is meant to explore artists’ inspirations and expose viewers to films they might not otherwise see. A project of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, the series has shown films at The Alloy and throughout Pittsburgh every Sunday since August 17, and will culminate in a two-day media festival on September 27 and 28.
What was the inspiration behind Afronaut(a) 2.0 and its name? (Is it pronounced “Afro-not-ah”?)
Yes! Like “astronaut.” I did a project called “The Reverse Migration Project” where I went from Pittsburgh through the Appalachians down to Charleston, South Carolina (where many slaves came in on the Atlantic Slave Trade), and then I went to West Africa. While I was in West Africa I came up with the term “Afronaut(a)” because it’s a play on Afrofuturism, being a woman, and traveling through time to Africa.
Right before I went to West Africa I had started a series of sci-fi films, so I was showing my films there and unexpectedly met filmmakers and started seeing all these short films—low production, low budget, but beautiful, very artistic. And all of these filmmakers weren’t traditional filmmakers, they were artists who decided to take on making these films.
When I came back, my students at Westinghouse High School loved the films, and there was a huge response when I put them on Facebook. So through an Andrew W. Mellon grant and the sponsorship of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, as well as the participation of cross-discipline artists, it started this amazing performance film club that met in the winter every other Sunday at The Alloy. The people who came loved it and wanted to do it again, so when my studio mate Blaine Siegel suggested that we should have these films and performances at different locations, I asked him to be my co-curator.
I put out a call for submissions, and it was really cool that most of the submissions were from out of state—Chicago, L.A., New York, San Francisco, St. Louis. I realized I needed a lot more funding to bring these people here. I applied for a Sprout Grant and an Arts Initiative Fund through Heinz, and with this funding we were able to step up Afronaut(a), which is why it’s called Afronaut(a) 2.0.
Because it’s called “Afronaut(a)” a lot of people think it’s African American focused, which isn’t true—it’s called Afronaut(a) because I’m African American and I was describing myself going on this journey through film and my own interests and inspirations.
In a lot of my work, I play around in the fourth dimension of “time.” It boils down to the idea that the past, the present, and the future are all happening in the same moment—and if you think about it like that, we’re all African. The diaspora of humanity started in Africa and it’s gone all over this planet, so that’s how Afronaut(a) encompasses all cultures, interests, and disciplines of art.
What kind of off-site events have you held?
At the Wagman Observatory, we showed the film Space is the Place, a film by musician Sun Ra. He was very progressive in the 60s and 70s, and was really for the empowerment of oppressed people. In Space is the Place, his character comes to Earth after seeing how African Americans are treated, and says they should come with him to space: “space is the place.”
We also screened The Swimmer in the Braddock pool—it’s a beautiful, old, unused pool we cleaned out to set up chairs and a screen, and we watched the film in the pool. For that event, there were a lot of people from Braddock who wouldn’t necessarily come to The Alloy, so it was great making those connections.
What kind of events have you held at The Alloy?
Anqwenique Wingfield came and performed songs about women’s depression in media, so she sang Nina Simone and Billie Holiday songs, who both had addictions and mental illness. The author of Junkette came, local writer Sarah Shotlend. And we brought Philadelphia filmmaker Ah-Keisha McCants and her partner Et Green, who made this film Greenhouse about a mother suffering from mental illness who is raising twin sons.
One week we did mysticism in film, so Jasmine Hearn, Jil Stifel, and I did a performance piece around a reel of footage with mysticism from around the world, and then Jil (a yogi) led a meditation. Jennifer Nagle Myers also emailed me two days before and asked if she could do some live painting before the film. And so it turns into this really organic art—it kind of reminds me of things I read about New York in the ‘60s, where people were doing plays on roofs and different artists were hanging out, creating things, and talking about where their work coincided.
For this two day festival, Blaine and I have worked really hard to curate something that connects the artistic process, cross-disciplines, futurism, non-traditional film, experimentation, and the environment it’s shown in. We’ve taken a lot of time to consider what happens at The Alloy and what happens at other locations.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., we’re screening a film called A Band Called Death at The Space Upstairs. It’s about three African American brothers who formed a punk band in the era of Motown, arguably the first punk band in existence. Then Christiane Leach (a.k.a. Christiane D) is going to lead a panel and perform, and then Pearlann Porter is going to do a performance piece.
At 7 p.m. at the Alloy, Erin Christovale from L.A. and Amir George from Chicago are presenting their curated film series Black Radical Imagination, which is basically what Afronaut(a) is about: new media, video art, and experimental narrative. Then there’s an after party at 9 p.m. at BOOM Concepts, with Tracksploitation performing.
On Sunday at 2 p.m., performance artist Autumn Knight is doing a piece at the Fieldwork Gallery, and then at 4 p.m. we’re screening Ongoing Box at The Alloy, which is Dave Bernabo’s film about the artistic process. Our last event is at 8:30 p.m. under the Veterans Bridge, and we’re partnering with The Drift to do projections on the water.
Why is this work important to you?
This work is a part of my process. I’m not just an artist but also an arts educator and a public artist, so it’s important to me to have programs to share what’s inspiring me. I also want to make non-traditional things more accessible to people, to show them things they wouldn’t normally see. It’s also very exciting that I can provide a platform for artists to present their work.
How can people get involved?
They can get in contact with me, they can go on the website afronautafilms.tumblr.com, and they can submit work there. They can come to Afronaut(a) and talk to the community of people there. And people just have to tell me if they want to perform or get involved. So it’s definitely accessible. It’s at The Alloy, and it’s free.