In a world that likes labels and pigeonholes, Ayoka Chenzira has avoided limitations by defining her own life on her own terms. She has even chosen her own name, one that sums her up beautifully: Ayoka (Yoruba for bringer of joy) and Chenzira (Shona for woman born on the road with a lot of energy).
Chenzira has shot one feature film, drawn and animated short films, embraced digital media as a more accessible, flexible way to tell stories, and earned a doctorate in digital media arts, one of subjects she teaches as a professor and division chair for the arts at Spelman College in Atlanta. A world traveler, Chenzira’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge has put her at the forefront of African American artists eager to bring storytelling into the future.
INSPIRATION FOR AN ADVENTUROUS LIFE
Chenzira credits her mother as the inspiration for her adventurous life of accomplishment. “I grew up in North Philadelphia with my mom, a single mom who owned her own business,” she says. “My mother trained me very early that different is good and to embrace it. It took me a while to learn that, but it has been a very powerful force in my life.”
Chenzira attended Catholic schools in her youth. Her experience in the Catholic church, with its theatrical rituals and pageantry, gave her a love of drama that would blossom during her career. In addition, going to the movies in the 1950s and ’60s was much more of an event than it is today. Many movie palaces were still open and showing first-run movies, and their plush seating, red-velvet curtains, and intermissions—all mimicking the high-tone legitimate theatre experience—intensified her interest in film.
With the support of her mother, who bought her a Super 8 camera needed for her coursework, Chenzira studied art, film, and photography at The College of New Rochelle, but transferred to New York University to take advantage of its more abundant resources. Her time at NYU was busy and varied. When the film school refused to support her ambitions to be a director or cinematographer, she arranged an internship for credit with Third World Newsreel, a bastion for progressive filmmaking. She also was receiving dance instruction from Syvilla Fort, an influential African American dancer and instructor. Chenzira earned her BFA in film production from NYU with her thesis film Syvilla: They Dance to Her Drum (1979), a short documentary about her teacher.
She took a job with the Black Filmmaker Foundation that put her in contact with most of America’s Black filmmakers, including Julie Dash and the late Kathleen Collins, who arranged Chenzira’s first teaching job, at the City Colleges of New York’s Picker Film Institute.
During the 1980s, Chenzira noticed changes in Black hairstyles, an area of great interest to her from having grown up in her mother’s beauty parlor. Intrigued by the possibilities, she enrolled in an animation course at The New School, and working with her own drawings, created the animated short Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984).
The amusing short shows the lengths African Americans have gone to trying to achieve good (read “white”) hair, and ends by affirming the beauty of Black hair in its natural state. In 2018, the short film was added to the National Film Registry, the U.S. National Film Preservation Board’s collection of films selected for preservation for their historical, cultural, and aesthetic contributions.
Hair Piece was indeed restored, along with Chenzira’s only feature film, Alma’s Rainbow (1994). Shot on 35mm color film for $350,000 over about 15 days, Chenzira channeled all of her experiences in her mother’s beauty parlor into the semi-autobiographical film about a teenager, her sensible mother, and her flamboyant aunt all living together in the house where the two adult women grew up.
The engaging comedy, recently given a 4K restoration and a nationwide tour in preparation for a DVD/Blu-ray release, almost never saw the light of day. The original distribution of Alma’s Rainbow was “a bumpy road,” says Chenzira.” I had a hard time finding distribution. It showed mostly at film festivals and then just sat there.”
What was the problem? “One of the big criticisms that I heard when we were first trying to get a distribution deal was ‘How could a Black woman own a house so beautiful? This just doesn’t make sense,’ Chenzira comments. “Yet in real life, the house was owned by a Black couple, Peggy and Lloyd Toone. Everything in it is things from their collection and their family’s collection. He’s an artist and she was a famous model. They restored that house.”
Chenzira recalls that her entry into interactive media occurred when “quite frankly, I became bored with cinema. A lot of the releases had a feeling of being the same. Tonally, they all sounded alike, and the color palettes were very similar. I also realized that I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to make another 35mm film again—or if I really wanted to. I didn’t want to spend the next eight to 10 years convincing people I could make a movie and then having to raise the money and figuring it all out.
“Somewhere around 2004 or 2005, I decided that I wanted to go back to school to learn new skills,” she continues. “I was very interested in the computer as an expressive medium, so I applied to Georgia Tech and got in. I was one of five students that year who got into the PhD program.”
Chenzira was focused on making haptic cinema, a type of cinema in which the spectator must put all their senses to work to make sense of the film they are viewing. “I would build these digital media tabletops—imagine a box with an open top, and inside is all kind of hardware, computers,” she says of these efforts.
“The first project was a tribute to my mother. It was built like a woman’s vanity table, and on it were objects that I recreated that would be my mother’s—a very beautiful perfume bottle, a pin cushion, the first dollar that she ever made, a sculpture of a nun. And they had radio-frequency identification tags on the bottoms of them. So, on the top of the table is a projection of my mother at various points in her life, and if you’re able to line up the physical object to the place on the digital picture that it connects with, then another screen would present a short documentary about that particular part of my mother’s life.
“Now the fun thing to me about this project is that each of the objects thought that they were her favorite, so they would argue about who was the first, and who was her favorite, and who saw what.” This type of interactive cinema led to a recent project, HERadventure, a science fantasy/video game that she created with her daughter HaJ.
EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE AND FILM
When she went to work at Spelman, she decided to mount the screenplay as a multimedia stageplay. “There’s the performance part on stage, and then various actors talk to other actors who have been filmed, but it appears that they are talking to them in real time. Ruby Dee, who was a friend I’d known for years, agreed to come to Spelman for two weeks and play the central character,” she says. But she also decided to create an experimental cinematic experience with it. “I built this very large sculpture and put monitors in it. The sculpture had extended hands, and depending upon the objects that you put into the hands, you would get various filmed stories from those who were testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
THE NEXT STEP
Currently, Chenzira is directing a lot of television, but will be going on sabbatical in the fall to pursue photographic work and build a collection of avatars to drop into interactive stories she wants to tell. “I’m working more on solving the technical aspects of my vision,” she says.
Her life’s work, from Hair Pieces to Alma’s Rainbow to HERadventure, continues to involve elevating the experiences of women. “I have been working for a long time on women and oral narratives; that was one of the courses I taught at Spelman. In many ways, I’m always collecting women’s stories.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
A spirit both curious and gifted, Ayoka Chenzira is a pioneering Black filmmaker who has pushed the boundaries of where cinema can go. As an educator, she has encouraged new generations of women to find and raise their voices as they pursue careers in the liberal arts. Her dedication to ensuring that authentic African American experiences find their way into the mainstream of American society enriches us all.— Marilyn Ferdinand