Madeleine Hunt – Ehrlich
“How can narrative embody life in words, and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” – Saidiya Hartman
I make work about black people living in the Americas. My practice is rooted in archival research and field research, which then gets translated through a writing process, and then finally a filmmaking process that includes narrative, documentary and experimental film technique. This means working closely with archives that until recently did not preserve or respect black voices, and thinking about how to represent histories that have been neglected.
What I discover to be lost to time in research, I embrace. I write and improvise my way through these limitations of the historical archive through performance elements, play with visual rhymes, collage and repetition. This approach is shaped in conversation with what scholar Saidiya Hartman terms “critical fabulation,” but it also considers Edouard Glissant’s theory of “opacity” as a philosophical answer to the post-colonial. How do we lift up and do the work of sorting through our histories, without repeating the violence of the colonial/ western doctrine? I believe there is value to both elevating the material we have as-is, while creating room for audiences to enter into, to connect, to imagine in respect to the archive’s limitations. Understanding that often missing details in the archive are actually evidence of trauma, for me the impulse is not to answer all mysteries, but rather to stop at that boundary line where the bread crumbs end and instead ask what can we make together with what we have?
Using a cinematic vocabulary, my film’s interact with the history of the photographic image, moving and still, repurposing it’s parts to construct a visual poetics. I allow the very material of film production to show in the work. This can manifest in different ways in my screenwriting and film works, such as breaking the fourth wall, leaning into an overt constructedness, camp, or reveal of production equipment in an image. For me this is a part of placing the constructedness of the image, and the justice I’m seeking from it, front and center, rather than replicating the false sense of authority that we expect from the photographic arts.
Current and recent films of mine continue to crystallize my formal approach to film artworks. “Spit on the Broom” is a film that is the result of two years of research in partnership with historic women’s group the United Order of Tents, a secret organization
of black women founded in the antebellum South on the underground railroad. In addition to the resulting film, I worked with current members of the group which is still active, to create an archive that has been accessioned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. At the culmination of this field work, I wrote the film “Spit on the Broom.” Out of respect for the groups continued secrecy and despite my access to their internal narratives, I used excerpts from the public record, newspaper articles related to the Tents from over the course of 100 years, and a visual tapestry of fable and myth as a way to introduce a history that remains secret. The film starts with the recreation of a hidden mother portrait, a form of victorian portraiture that used the bodies of domestics as a means of keeping a child still to be photographed. It ends with a black, victorian woman making a portrait of two black women, an image inspired by photographs I viewed in the Tent’s collection.
Ongoing works includes a trilogy of films titled the “Black Composer Trilogy,” a series of works that take disparate approaches to exploring the intersections of art making and desire, and the unique history of black women artists for whom sustainable art careers were often impossibilities for much of the twentieth century. Part I: A Quality of Light, 2018 is a collaboration with 96 year old actress Vinie Burrows, who portrays composer Daphne Clement. Over the course of her life Clement authored over 100 compositions, but her performance career was cut short when she went blind in her early twenties. The film repeats a single mundane event, over and over as a voice contemplates what we can, and cannot know of our mothers and their desires. Part II: A Farewell to America explores the correspondence of the first published African American artist, Phillis Wheatley, with her friend and confidant Obour Tanner, a fellow slave who lived in Rhode Island. Phillis and Obour were captured as children in Senegal and transported to the colonies on the same ship. Over the course of their lives the two women wrote to one another seven times. Part III: Dear Julia stages a musical composition by marginalized neo-classical composer Julia Perry. This work is in varying degrees of completion.
The invitation to apply for the Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant comes at an exciting and crucial moment for my work. I am coming off some important screenings and in the midst of exciting conversations with curators, film programmers and arts institutions about upcoming opportunities. This award would arrive at a crucial moment in both the development of the work and at a point where the work will be continuing to reach new audiences.