Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

Activism through art… (Part 1)

… Loughborough’s IAS features film-maker, Chris Ivey!

By Agostinho Pinnock

“…I am an artist first, then a filmmaker… One of the goals with my film work is to give the audience a view of life from the perspective of marginalised people and how the events around them affect them, directly and indirectly. This is what I strive for in all my work – to pull the audience in, whether it’s for a 30-second commercial or a full-length feature film. I want them to…experience…something either humorous or heartfelt, but most of all, inspiring. I want to inspire them to have conversations for change, and to spur the seeds of action…”

– Chris Ivey, Artist, Filmmaker

Below is the first of a two-part review of the work of artist, film-maker, Chris Ivey. He was a recent guest of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at Loughborough. Ivey uses his art to inspire change.

Often when we think of political activism images of marginalised communities engaged in street protests are what come to mind. Rarely do film installations featuring provocative trans-Atlantic connections a likely option. In fact, they are usually not. Precious few can even make the link between different groups of people living in ostensibly disparate places: Africa, North America and Europe, in these ways. Chris Ivey can. Just ask the Pittsburgh artist and filmmaker and suddenly the circle is closed.

Ivey was a recent guest at Loughborough’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). He presented a dramatic showing of his film installation: “We Are Here: Finding Beauty in the Raw”. An edited version of a longer work, the film grounds the idea of marginality, gentrification and the rising tide of nationalist violence as foundational threats to western democracy. This is certainly the case for Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, the literal and proverbial ‘scene of the crime’ in Ivey’s film. But it is not the only site of his intervention.

A scene from the film

In his post-discussion Ivey told the small audience which gathered at the art school that he will also include updates to the work from the tragic Grenfell fires two years ago in the United Kingdom. He is interested in the religious, cultural and ideological links between Africa, America and Europe, in the context of a creeping fascism manifested as racial violence and how those implicate diverse communities.

Rather unexpectedly, the story begins in South Africa. Two generations of men speak to each other. The elder cautions the teenager of the value of returning to African roots of worship. He underlines its necessity in responding to today’s demands and the after effects of colonialism, specifically.

Hardly meant as a quaint throwback to a supernatural god which shows up at the proverbial ‘end’ and makes everything right, this is no Greek deus-ex-machina. Instead, Ivey says he attempts to appropriately contextualise a longer history of spirituality and faith as vital to engaging the struggle against white supremacy. The message is clear. Religion is not an easy or even likely solution.

On the contrary, it is part of a theme which Ivey traces in the trans-Atlantic routes between different groups of people in their efforts to interpret a world increasingly marked by exclusion and injustice. Fascism is Ivey’s true target. His probing lens is not satisfied simply to just say it or even utter meaningless platitudes about ‘how similar we are’ as address.

Rather the Pittsburgh native takes us deep into the underbelly of issues, almost like a crime-scene reporter. Except he is not. Trained in film at Pittsburgh Filmmakers just under twenty-five years ago, Ivey sees himself first as an artist. He insists on the designation. However, Ivey initially worked as a commercial director. And he was a good one at that. He has several advertising awards to prove it.

However, Ivey wanted more. He was unable to get work (in film), locally. He is emphatic: “it was because I was the youngest director at that time, and I am also Black”. Pointing to his profound disappointment, Ivey says: “I went on to constructively channel my anger and frustrations about Pittsburgh’s racism through a documentary series I created about gentrification called East of Liberty.

The series was named after the gentrified neighbourhood, East Liberty in Pittsburgh, where it takes place. It (the film) served as a vehicle for displaced Black residents in East Liberty to have their say. The spirit of it is carried on through We Are Here.”

It is this ‘spirit’ which is at the centre of Ivey’s work. He is adamant: “I wanted to remind people of the ones going through life-changing events and still fighting through, finding a way to be whole again after traumatic events, whether community displacement, natural disaster or death.”

It is not unlike one of his artistic forebears. Ivey is awe of Toni Morrison. Her deeply profound and thought-provoking musings on the power of art to disrupt, displace and, ultimately heal whole communities in its pursuit of justice, bears being repeated. According to the iconic author, and first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, (back in 1993): “[c]ertain kinds of trauma visited on [some] peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity”.

Toni Morrison

Morrison who died recently, made the comments in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech. They echo the activist legacy of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and sharply reminds artists like Ivey of the potency of their voices (in whatever format) to mobilise people into action, in this case to protest injustice. Morrison’s charge is his roadmap. Ivey says he is inspired. He hopes to change the world.

To be continued…

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