UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 04 Spring 16 Library
Amy Skinner  (Guggenheim Foundation)

HOOS FOR ART: Akosua Adoma Owusu (College‘05)

Hoos for Art at UVA!

How have your experiences at UVA and with Kevin Everson impacted your career?

I grew up in a low income Ghanaian family in the immigrant community of Alexandria, Virginia.  My dad was a cab driver and my mom is a retired custodian, so going to UVA and choosing art and film as a major wasn’t a realistic option. In my first year, I took drawing classes with Megan Marlatt and printmaking with Akemi Ohira and Dean Dass to escape my parents’ expectation of taking the pre-med route at UVA. It was less of a need to rebel and more of an urge to prove myself, to my parents and to my family, that we had options.

Reluctantly Queer
(Photo: Obibini Pictures LLC)

When it came time to declare Studio Art for a major in my second year, Kevin was returning to UVA from an American Academy in Rome residency. So, Cinematography in Art was a serendipitous encounter.  I decided to take Media Studies for a double major because it seemed like a practical major to get a job after graduation. Cinematography and printmaking were my concentrations for my Studio Art major and I was able to integrate my Studio Art courses in the Media Studies program. In UVA’s art program, Kevin’s cinematography classes taught us how to be self-reliant in the avant-garde.  I learned how to make films as an author, producer, and a film maker – all without a crew. I enjoyed this way of working because it was self-sufficient and sustainable, which mimicked my working class upbringing in which we had to make due with limited resources.

I was searching for ways to be creative in this south part of Virginia.  In Kevin’s cinematography classes, I found a medium where I could remix Ghanaian and American culture.  On holidays, I’d travel to Northern Virginia and make video film portraits of my mom cleaning elementary schools.  And, for my thesis art project, I took out a student loan to travel to Ghana with 16mm film exploring personal ethnography.  I made a short film “Ajube Kete” which won the Ken Jacobs Award, an award founded by former Virginia Film Festival Director Richard Herskowitz, and presented at the Salmagundi Student Film Festival.

Kevin had a huge impact on me as a student at UVA. He was the one professor who totally ‘got me.” He supported my vision, understood my limitations and helped me to push past them, while also mentoring and developing my storytelling abilities. Kevin was also a father figure to me constantly nurturing my success as he does with all of his students. I remember one time Kevin helped me build frames in the print shop for my thesis art show right before graduation. I have a tendency to take a lot on at the same time - like the double major and double concentration. Kevin understood that drive in me. He wanted to see me succeed and he didn’t just talk the talk. He walked right there beside his students making sure they overcame any obstacles.  

Are there other UVA related experiences, people or events that you find yourself drawing upon in your work?

I’m informed by much of my UVA courses including Walter Korte’s “Cinema as an Art Form,” where I learned about the work of Terrence Malick. Adria LaViolett’s “Peoples of African Cultures in Anthropology” is where I was introduced to other Africans at UVA. This was the first space where I found first-generation African as well as African American students in dialogue with each other about Africa.  I worked on campus at the Digital Media Lab as a consultant, and found the films of Francophone filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety, in the video library.

I’m also still in contact with some of my UVA classmates. Bee Walker and I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2005, and since then, I’ve been keeping up with Bee’s journey as photographer. In 2014, I approached Bee about traveling with me to Ghana to scout locations for my feature film, Black Sunshine. Black Sunshine has specific visual ambitions and I felt Bee could help with conveying this. Her photographs represent the mood of my film in terms of texture and complexion and we inspired each other while collaborating in Ghana. Then, the summer Bee traveled to Ghana, was when I learned that one of my friends in Ghana, Kwame Edwin Otu was accepted in the Carter G. Woodson Institute post-doctoral Fellowship program at UVA.  Kwame and I recently collaborated on a short film project, Reluctantly Queer, based on his dissertation at UVA about the complexities and possibilities of queer identities, race and citizenship. The film is in the Berlinale Shorts Competition at the Berlin International Film Festival this year. Whether it’s in Virginia or Ghana, I’m constantly being drawn to collaborating and making art with friends in the places that I call home.

In UVA’s art program, Kevin Everson’s cinematography classes taught us how to be self-reliant in the avant-garde.
Akosua Adoma Owusu

Much of your work deals with what you call the “complex contradictions” between the two continents that make up your heritage, African and American. What continually draws you to that subject and the idea of “triple identity” that you associate with Africans in the United States?

Identity is at the heart of my work, where I attempt to represent Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness.  I created the third identity or consciousness, which includes the diverse consciousness of women and African immigrants interacting in African, white American, and black American cultures.  I like using situations from lived experiences and remixing culture in documentary narrative formats. My films update Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness showing how aspects of culture diverge and converge. Instead of “Africanizing” Western stories, I’m interested in reclaiming African history, going into the past, and African traditions and rendering them into what is happening in the present day.

You have often talked about the autobiographical nature of some of your films. Talk about how you have bridged the heritage gap between Ghana and America and how that continues to inform your work.

Bridging gaps has a lot to do with representation. Even as a student at UVA, I was concerned about how I represented myself, always making sure that I was authentic to my biography and family narrative.  I remember wearing my “Africanness” and my identity on the outside through my choice of clothing, even going as far as walking on campus and wearing Maasai necklaces from Kenya or extremely long braids. In a way, that representation was a form of re-appropriation. Proclaiming these cultural identity markers out of context.  My parents hated it, but it was my way of bridging a gap between this American environment and my African roots. Over the years, this representation has become hybridization, relying heavily on aesthetics and forming new tropes rather than realistic or true representation.  I’m neither American nor Ghanaian, so I’d rather make films from the spaces in-between culture; a cinematic space that is all-inclusive, a space that represents my voice as a mash-up of both and other cultures.   Working from this space allows me to insert myself into the tradition of African storytelling through cinema. My films pull together multiple narratives that mesh into new metaphors to form new meaning. They are manifestations of my imagination, anger and anxieties.

You have received an extraordinary amount of acclaim and have had the opportunity to share your work in some of the most renowned festivals and museums in the world. What would you consider to the highlight of your career to date?

It’s been quite overwhelming and extremely exciting. I want to say the highlight of my career to date was having four of my experimental films purchased for the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection.  Following that, the Museum included one of my experimental films, Intermittent Delight in their inaugural show “America is Hard to See”, which was the Museum’s first exhibit since moving to theirnew building. After producing my short film Kwaku Ananse, which is an adaptation of a popular folktale from Ghana and the African diaspora, I got interested in producing African stories adapted from literature.  I received the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Film and Video, which allowed me to invest in my production company, Obibini Pictures LLC.  I recently optioned the film adaptation rights for a short story by Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s short story of race and sexuality resonated with me, and I am excited to be able to share her work and this story in a short film assignment.  I’m producing the film in New York this year with an amazing production team that supports my vision.

Kwaku Ananse Trailer by Akosua Adoma Owusu

Produced by Obibini Pictures, LLC in association with Focus Features Africa First

Kwaku Ananse is an intensely personal project which draws upon the rich mythology of Ghana. The short film combines semi-autobiographical elements with the tale of Kwaku Ananse, a trickster in West African stories who appears as both spider and man. Ananse teaches us that there are two sides to everything and everyone. The fable of Kwaku Ananse is combined with the story of a young outsider named Nyan Koronhwea attending her estranged father's funeral. At the funeral, she retreats to the woods in search for her father.

Kwaku Ananse is an effort to preserve a fable my father passed on to me, and in turn to preserve a dying yet immensely rich cultural heritage.

Tell us about your upcoming first feature film, Black Sunshine.

Black Sunshine tells the story abouta dark-skinned Ghanaian hairdresser named Rosemary who has an albino daughter.  Rosemary believes that her skin color is a hindrance and having birthed an albino, she is full of guilt and shame of her own blackness.  As a result, she seeks love through skin bleaching products, which ultimately become an addiction.  On the other hand, her young albino daughter Coco doesn’t look like the usual Ghanaian and wants nothing more than to be loved by her mother, because her mother’s dark skin is what she truly desires to have.  In some way, Rosemary is indirectly trying to feel close to her young albino daughter, Coco.  So, Coco creates a friend for herself to feel closer to blackness, a boy named Fortune, of her age. In one village in the Ashanti region of Ghana, Agogo, there are a lot of albinos.  In Ghana, albinos have a spiritual father, which is the Afram river. There is this belief that women are giving birth to albinos after drinking water from the Afram river near the village.   So, albinos are like children of the river.   When an albino child grows up, they are not allowed to go near water sources like beaches or the river because the myth says that their spiritual father wants to take them back home to the river.  Black Sunshine is currently in development and more information can be found at www.blacksunshinefilm.com.  

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Profile

Fellow: Awarded 2015
Field of Study: Film - Video
Competition: US & Canada

Akosua Adoma Owusu (born January 1, 1984) is a Ghanaian-American avant-garde filmmaker and producer whose films have screened worldwide in prestigious film festivals, museums, galleries, universities and microcinemas since 2005. Her work addresses the collision of identities, where the African immigrant located in the United States has a "triple consciousness.” Owusu interprets Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness and creates a third identity or consciousness, representing the diverse consciousness of women and African immigrants interacting in African, white American, and black American culture. Named by Indiewire as one of the 6 Avant-Garde Female Filmmakers Who Redefined Cinema, and one of The Huffington Post‘s Black Artists: 30 Contemporary Art Makers Under 40 You Should Know, Akosua Adoma Owusu is a MacDowell Colony Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. Founded in 2007, her company, Obibini Pictures, LLC has produced award-winning films including Reluctantly Queer and Kwaku Ananse, which received the 2013 African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film. Reluctantly Queer was nominated for the Golden Bear and Teddy Award at the Berlinale, Berlin International Film Festival in 2016. In 2010, Owusu was a featured artist at the 56th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. Artforum listed Me Broni Ba as one of 2010’s top ten films. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fowler Museum, Yale University Film Study Center, and Indiana University Bloomington, home of the Black Film Center/Archive. She’s received support from Creative Capital, Tribeca All Access, IFP, Focus Features Africa First, the Art Matters Foundation, the Camargo Foundation and the Berlinale World Cinema Fund. Owusu holds MFA degrees in Film & Video and Fine Art from California Institute of the Arts and received her BA in Media Studies and Studio Art with distinction from the University of Virginia, where she studied under the mentorship of prolific avant-garde filmmaker, Kevin Jerome Everson.

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