THIS WEEKEND, FEB. 3-5, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents Through the Lens of African American Women, a mini-festival of four films and one short, all directed by Black women. The lineup was curated by UH graduate Autumn Johnson, who interned with the MFAH film department last summer and produced the short film This is Real Life, which has earned 70,000 views and counting on YouTube. As Houston is home to such talented Black female film directors as Candice D’Meza, Lisa E. Harris and Brittany Bass, and this being Black History Month, the festival is timely and will resonate with anyone interested in great, independent filmmaking.
The festival kicks off with Alma’s Rainbow (1994), directed by Ayoka Chenzira, a coming-of-age drama starring Victoria Gabrielle Platt as Rainbow Gold, a teenager trying to make sense of societal standards of beauty, her self-image, and the rights Black women have (or lack) over their own bodies.
Preceding the screening is Chenzira’s animated musical satire Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984). On Saturday, the festival screens the buzz-worthy surreal art-school-meets-art-world satire The African Desperate (2022), directed by Martine Syms, and starring Diamond Stingily as an MFA candidate desperately trying to get out of upstate New York and back home to Chicago. Saturday is also the date for The Watermelon Woman (1996), directed by Cheryl Dunye, in which a filmmaker, played by Dunye, explores the legacy of a fictional Faith Richardson, a “lost cinematic ancestor glimpsed in 1930s race films.” Described as a landmark of the New Queer Cinema, the film switches from 16mm to grainy video tape, with black-and-white “archival” footage of Richardson. A live, virtual Q&A with Dunye follows the screening.
The festival concludes on Sunday with the experimental feature-length film Compensation (1999), directed by Zeinabu irene Davis. Inspired by the poem of the same name by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and set in turn-of-the-century and present-day Chicago, Compensation tells the story of a deaf woman and a hearing man, two couples living decades apart, who fall in love. With the needs of both hearing and deaf viewers in mind, Davis uses silent film techniques and subtitles throughout, as the unfolding narrative addresses issues of racism, disabilities and discrimination.
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WHAT IS THE CONNECTION between Black hair and architecture? A new group exhibit titled Hair Salon, opening today UH, considers this question and provides some eye-opening answers in the form of art, design and architectural works, all inspired by the material properties and cultural and social history of Black hair.
Sheryl Tucker de Vazquez, instructional associate professor at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design and interim director of the interior architecture program, leads the exhibition's curatorial and artistic team. “Very little African material culture survived the Trans-Atlantic slave trade,” says de Vazquez in a press release. “Black hair care practices are a vibrant, living inheritance throughout African diasporic cultures.” In 2021, de Vazquez received a grant to study how computational methods can translate the formal, rules-based processes involved in Black hair care, including braiding, locking, and African threading, into ways to imagine and ultimately realize new architectural forms. “Because the Black hair strand grows straight up, it defies gravity, does not need support, and can naturally enclose and contain space,” explains de Vazquez, whose artwork utilizes fabrics and metals to mirror Black hair’s “stiffness and materiality.”
The exhibit was inspired by California-based photographer Medina Dugger’s Chroma series, which pays tribute to women’s hairstyles in Nigeria and the work of Nigerian photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere. De Vazquez views the shapes of the dramatic, towering hairstyles captured by Dugger not just as symbols of pride in and affirmation of one’s culture, but as models for new ways to shape the spaces in which all of us live and work. In addition to Dugger’s photos, Hair Salon features works by Marcella del Signore, Tatiana Teixeira, William D. Williams, Felecia Davis, and Dijana Handonović, assistant professor of interior architecture at UH, mixed-media artist Francois Beaurain, and Houston artist and professor of art at Lone Star College Rabéa Ballin.
Hair Salon is on view at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design through February.
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ACCLAIMED TEXAS ARTIST John Bramblitt is celebrated for his brightly colored, impressionistic paintings, including portraits of close friends, family, and such famous folks as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Animals are another favorite subject, including tropical birds, wild horses, and a loveable yellow lab named Eagle, who happens to be Bramblitt’s guide dog. You see, Bramblitt began painting after completely losing his vision in 2001 due to complications with epilepsy and Lyme disease.
Beginning Feb. 5, Denton-based Bramblitt will be in Houston to share his story and his art as the featured guest of the ReelAbilities Houston Film & Arts Festival. His paintings will be on view at Sabine Street Studios, and on Feb. 15, Bramblitt will speak at ReelPeople: UP Abilities about the trauma of losing his sight, and the joy of gaining the skill to paint.
Ever since Bramblitt was a child, art has been a lifeline. “I think I could draw before I could walk,” says Bramblitt, who drew with pencil and charcoal as a way of relieving the stress of living with epilepsy. The severe seizures would finally cause his vision to go from legal to complete blindness. After losing his sight, Bramblitt remained in school, but stopped drawing, figuring it was impossible for a blind person to create visual art, and focused on learning how to function and survive as a sightless person. But slowly, over time, while working through serious depression which included thoughts of suicide, Bramblitt gradually discovered he could realize the images he still saw in his mind’s eye by outlining shapes with raised lines on paper and canvas and learning to differentiate paint colors by touch and mix and create a full spectrum of unique hues.
Using his hands to feel the shape and features of the face, Bramblitt can paint startlingly accurate portraits, including one of his then-newborn, now 14-year-old son, Jeff. “I was able to feel his face within his first few breaths,” says Bramblitt, “and the color in my brain just exploded. All of my artwork since then has been in vibrant colors.” Up until that moment, Bramblitt was concerned that being sightless would impact his ability to parent. “I wondered, ‘How in the world are we going to throw a ball?’” says Bramblitt. “But life just finds a way, and being a dad has turned out to be the best thing in my life.”
Now a father and a married man for 15 years, Bramblitt shares the techniques he developed in the aftermath of losing his sight in multi-sensory workshops for artists of all ages and people with disabilities, including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and PTSD. Participants learn how to create art while blindfolded, and the experience is revelatory. “I’ve never done a workshop where we aren’t all just laughing and having a good time,” says Bramblitt. He also advises museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim, on how to create more inclusive experiences for their visitors, where not just one but all of the senses are used to experience and appreciate art. “The more senses we put into the art, the more we get out of it,” says Bramblitt.
For Bramblitt, all of this activity allows him to connect with people, something he struggled to do in the years before losing his vision, and share how a blind man visualizes the world. “The world is a far more colorful place now than when I was sighted,” says Bramblitt.
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