Kyle Phoenix Presents: Fantasy Hollywood: restaging classic films with black models on The Kyle Phoenix Blog
Fantasy Hollywood: restaging classic films with black models
When two Dakar-based photographers messed with some very familiar screen moments, they were taken aback by the racial dimension to the response
Missla Libsekal for Another Africa, part of the Guardian Africa network
Back in the 80s, my classmates and I piled into Mbabane’s local cinema to watch Top Gun. We’d turn to each other, channeling our best version of Val Kilmer to spout “You can be my wing man anytime” – followed by intense laughter. Who doesn’t have a favourite line, an iconic moment from film lodged in our minds?
Dakar-based photographers Omar Victor Diop and Antoine Tempé were counting on just that, the shared experience and ubiquity of film, when the hotel group Onomo International invited them to create a series of photographs using the hotel as a backdrop. They turned to the silver screen, to iconic moments they’ve held onto to and mined for their collaborative project, ONOMOllywood.
In 20 images that pay homage to characters such as Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, these reinventions begin with the a humble “what if…” A question looking to how popular global cultural translates to the local, what could it look like, and what new memories would it create. The project has created conversation, accolades and blowback, but in an interview with Another Africa, Diop takes it all in stride.
Missla Libsekal | Representational art usually puts artists in the hot seat, audiences tend to have strong opinions. For example Samuel Fosso’s self-portraits as famous political figures or Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood series. Mimicry steps on the nerve of nostalgia, the sacred or even challenges the status quo. What tale does ONOMOllywood tell and does it hit any nerves?
Omar Victor Diop |ONOMOllywood is a celebration of cinema, as an artistic discipline and of the magic of a great movie. For Antoine Tempé (the co-author of the series who created 10 out of the 20 images) and myself, what makes a great movie is the fact that the strength of its characters, plot and scenes transcends all geographic, temporal and racial barriers. A great movie is more than a series of sequences, it becomes a moment that is lived across the globe by people who have very little in common, but who relate to extraordinary stories that allow them to dream.
The example I always give is the magic of a James Bond movie; back when I was a kid, I didn’t care whether Roger Moore was white or black, or whether I was a British citizen… to me, he was a hero I could impersonate. After watching A View To A Kill, I firmly believed my pajamas were a tuxedo and that my mom’s kitchen was actually some concrete jungle where I would chase after criminals… That’s what cinema has brought to me and it still somehow does, to my adult life. A great movie is a dream.
ONOMOllywood did hit some nerves, especially in the US: after one of my interviews was published on CNN.COM . We were taken aback by the racial dimension of some readers’ comment. To my great surprise, I realised that this series could be seen by some as a sort of “revenge” of black people against a too “white” Hollywood. The “race war” in the comments section was quite epic!
It was rather amusing to see the way some readers resolutely eluded the fact that this project is the product of a collaboration between a French-American photographer and a Senegalese photographer. It was “just some black dude painting Hollywood in black because the world looked better like this”.
I guess this can be explained by a set of contextual factors. The article about ONOMOllywood was published in late July 2013, after a heated debate over a series of race-related affairs like the Trayvon Martin case in the US, a series of blackface incidents in fashion magazines in Europe, etc. I guess people from both sides were already prepared to shoot at anything that could be seen as an attempt to see the world from a racial perspective… Interesting experience indeed, we’re glad this project started a conversation in other continents, that’s the purpose of art, even though for us, ONOMOllywood remains a celebration, a well deserved homage to geniuses of cinema, to timeless moments.
The series has received quite a bit of attention, particularly in the press and through social media, what if any part of this journey has surprised you?
Apart from the reactions this series provoked in some parts of the world, I was personally surprised to see to what extent this exposure confirmed my belief that people share the same visual references across the globe. I grew up here in Dakar, a tiny Francophone country which has always been very open to influences from anywhere in the world. I remember when my sisters used to go to the Indian movies back in the 80s and how it was THE THING to do on a Wednesday afternoon. We loved Michael Jackson just as much as we looked up to Youssou N'Dour and Congolese rumba master Tabu Ley.
People like to think this world is getting smaller due to the internet, but I think it has always been quite an incredibly tiny village. Last year, I had the chance to go to Panama City for a biennial of contemporary arts, and one night I was invited to a function at some Cuban diplomat’s residence, I started singing along to a Cuban classic rumba song and people were stunned. They couldn’t believe that people of my age grew up listening to Celia Cruz (La Guantanamera) and Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco, for instance. These were huge stars in Africa too, back in the 60s and 70. Small world!
When you first conceived this project, did you have particular audience in mind?
We did expect this series to be shown in various parts of the world indeed, but we certainly had no idea it could go this viral before it was even unveiled. We regularly receive letters and emails from many unexpected places; a few weeks ago, we saw on the internet that a lecture was given about ONOMOllywood to post-grads in a Brazilian university. Yhis is incredibly rewarding and humbling.
How did you choose the 20 film scenes, and which are your favourites?
Antoine and I brainstormed for quite a while, and then when we agreed on the idea of paying homage to our favourite cinematic moments, each of us was free to make his own list. Of course, some movies were on both lists, and at some point, we had to bargain.
Senegal has a rich history in cinematic film with notable names like Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty etc. Did this influence your project in any way?
The series comprises scenes from various movies, mostly American and French, and even though Antoine and I are both very fond lovers of Senegalese/African classics, we didn’t include any of these in the series, mainly because we want to dedicate a future project to this fantastic era of African Cinema. Stay tuned!