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Paul Mellon Centre: “Disorienting the Gaze: Ngozi Onwurah’s Early Films”

February 19, 2021 @ 6:00 am - 7:00 am

Disorienting the Gaze: Ngozi Onwurah’s Early Films
A research lunch event with Ana S. González.
This paper investigates the forms of control that modernity/coloniality exercises on knowledge, the senses, and perception. It concentrates on Ngozi Onwurah’s early films: The Body Beautiful (1990) – held at Central Saint Martins’ British Artists’ Film and Video Collection – and her graduation film Coffee-Coloured Children (1988). Initially concerned with how the films complicate the dominant model of perception as a form of appropriation, the analysis concentrates on Onwurah’s disorienting critical strategies.
The first section – Bodies – concentrates on The Body Beautiful and its reflection on illness, drawing from feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde’s account of her experience of breast cancer and mastectomy. It also delves into the film’s depiction of the changing relationship between mother and daughter amidst a complex web of conflicting ways of looking.
The second section – Times – considers how Onwurah’s films respond to “the most tumultuous decade of Britain’s domestic racial history” (Akala, 2019), as well as their relevance today. This section addresses the shift from “the struggle over the relations of representation to a politics of representation itself” (Hall, 1992). That is, the process in which critical practices went beyond questions of access, started unsettling either/or thinking and actively producing identity. In particular, it explores how Onwurah’s films prompt us to unlearn our seeing, thinking, and feeling habits. The paper reflects on the discussions of a film and reading group at University of the Arts London, which introduced a bell hooks-inspired pedagogy and explored conversation as a place of learning. It intends to move away from art history’s usual colonization or settling of its objects through the attachment of meaning. The paper adopts intersectionality as a “provisional concept” to examine the past’s bearing on the present and the future. As an “analytic sensibility” (Carastathis, 2016), intersectionality disorients entrenched cognitive and perceptual habits, encourages both/and thinking, and indicates the work still to be done.