Whitehot Magazine

Art Tells Stories: The Margaret Mead Film Festival

Video Capture from the film Color, directed by Tierney Brown, 2019, Photo © Jon H. Davis

By IRIS BROOKS, November 2019

Do colors have personalities?

It was this stimulating question, which lured me to the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History. Some artists are concerned with pigment opacity, the chemical properties of a color, or its solubility in water. Others dwell on tactile responses or psychological profiles of color, pairing them with types of humans as an aid to improved functioning. But it is the personality of colors standing on their own that drew me in. The concept is thought-provoking, and I am interested to hear about eggshell white described as a “shy” pigment; dark, opaque colors considered “bullies,” and how colors can be characterized as “wimps” depending on how they absorb light or decompose. While these ideas are tantalizing, more depth on the personality of color was absent in the 20-minute movie, Color, which I still found engaging.

From the film Color, 2019, Photo © Jon H. Davis 

The short film, Color, by young director Tierney Brown, who works in socio-cultural anthropology, was premiered at the Mead fest as part of a series of four short films collectively called Through the Artist’s Lens. The film Color leaves me salivating for more visual eye-candy. I want to see dynamic, close-up shots of saturated hues, to help propel the story, and enable the audience to feel the personality of the colors. That said, I appreciate the comments of Roger Danilo Camona– manager of the New York City Kremer Pigments shop–who compares the depth of formulating paint to preparing and feasting on a home-cooked meal. In the post-screening panel, he speaks of his relationship with color, commenting: “Some pigments are easy to get along with; others are more stubborn. The ones with difficult names are usually more difficult.” 

Projected Image at the American Museum of Natural History
Photo by Jon H. Davis 

The Margaret Mead Film Festival is an annual event at the American Museum of Natural History honoring this pioneering anthropologist, one of the first to recognize the significance of film in fieldwork. Today the festival (now in its 42nd year) brings some visionary work to a general public with the theme of “Breaking the Narrative” for the 2019 fall event. Cultural storytelling from all parts of the globe is at the core of the screenings and discussions, engaging the audience in visual anthropology, stimulating the imagination and new perspectives, while disrupting stereotypical representations of culture. 

Images Compiled from Cuban Canvas directed by Kavery Kaul, 2019
Photo Montage © Jon H. Davis

Each of the four films shown at Through the Artist’s Lens has something positive to offer. Cuban Canvas, by award-winning director Kavery Kaul, who believes “the power of storytelling crosses all borders,” explores the lines connecting art and life. This short documentary briefly introduces artists experimenting with form and content through found objects, paper, and paint in Havana today, as well as looking back and towards the future of art in Cuba. While the film is merely a quick look at or nod to the artists, showcasing what sparks them, the sentiments of Kaul resonate with the Mead Festival. She says: “The stories we’ve heard shape our beliefs, our way of life, and our perspective on the world. Captured on film, they inspire us to think, to care, to question.” 

Images Compiled from Cultural Activist Maree Clarke directed by Simon Rose, 2018
Montage by Jon H. Davis

The multi-disciplinary artist Maree Clarke (a Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung) is profiled in a film, Cultural Activist Maree Clarke. Connecting with culture is paramount for this Australian Aboriginal artist who works in media ranging from kangaroo teeth necklaces (which involve scavenging to find dead kangaroos in the back country and removing their teeth) to sculptures of loss based upon mourning practices of Aboriginal women cutting their hair and 3D printing and holographic works. The well-crafted film directed by Simon Rose, imparts both a sense of place while introducing an interesting artist, who tells stories through her art. Clarke explains: “My work is about regenerating cultural practices, making people aware of our culture, and that we are really strong in our culture, identity and knowledge. We haven’t lost anything; some of these practices have just been laying dormant for a while.” 

Still Image from Cultural Activist Maree Clarke

The film successfully introduces the artist Maree Clarke, who is well worth following, whether she is drawing upon traditional objects (mourning caps) ceremonial patterns, ancestral memories, and local materials (possum skin cloaks) or presenting multimedia installations. Her work revives elements of lost culture and reclaims Australian Aboriginal heritage within a contemporary art practice, imparting something new and vital.

It is a treat to have the inspirational artist Clarke and some of the other filmmakers live in New York for the short Q & A sessions following the films. Hopefully next year a more experienced interviewer/moderator will present the artists and filmmakers at the Mead, allowing for a conversational exchange with some members of the sold-out audience. Because of time restrictions, many questions remained unanswered, leaving some viewers with a sense of growing frustration. 

Still Images from A Woman Who Paints Thangkas, directed by Ming Xue, 2019
Photos © Jon H. Davis and Iris Brooks

Another disappointment is the film, A Woman Who Paints Thangkas by Chinese director, Ming Xue. The film is purportedly about a trailblazing female Tibetan artist who broke taboos to study the Buddhist art of scroll painting. Although the topic sounds fascinating, the film is not. Unfortunately viewers are not shown much of Lutso’s highly detailed artwork, since the film meanders to ancillary material about a barley harvest and a party hosted by the artist’s father. The focus is diluted, virtually no information about the ancient tradition of Tibetan Buddhist Thangka scroll paintings is communicated, and very few images of art are incorporated into a film about art.

From the Panel on Power of First Nations Filmmaking: A Tribute to Barb Cranmer
Photo Compilation © Jon H. Davis 

A more interesting presentation at the Mead deals with First Nation people of Canada. The Power of First Nations Filmmaking: A Tribute to Barb Cranmer is a special forum. Indigenous storytelling and the impact of film to empower is key in this Mead Dialogue honoring pioneering First Nations (Namgis) filmmaker Barb Cranmer, who passed away this year. Her sister Donna, a weaver, explains: “We can tell our own stories; we don’t need talking heads.” Confiscated artifacts, ancestral dances, and recording history through art are part of the documentary film excerpts and legacy from Barb Cranmer’s years of work, affirming cultural identity and indigenous history while creating many films referencing local weaving, boating, fishing, and stories of oppression as well as cultural renewal.

The accompanying, heartfelt discussion from the perspective of the First Nations artists from Canada educate the audience as to how damaging the Canadian government was to the First Nations tribes, confiscating not only their art, but their language, lineage encompassing song and dance, and priceless other cultural treasures. “Our language was outlawed in Canadian Indian schools. When you damage people’s tongues literally or metaphorically, you damage them,” says Haa’yuups, a Nuu-chah-nulth, artist and cultural historian. During the ensuing discussion, filmmaker Tasha Hubbard reflects on the need for ceremonies and the significance of film as a transformative art, “with storytellers, bringing us through this fog.” 

The Margret Mead Film Festival–with 40 films shown in four days–is a powerful reminder that art tells stories, whether it is about the oldest continuous culture of indigenous people or those embracing new and emerging technologies. WM

Iris Brooks

 Brooks is an author and former Editor of 
EAR Magazine, who has been fortunate to travel to, photograph, write about, and play music on all seven continents. Hundreds of her arts and culture stories have been published in many magazines and her films have been screened at museums, universities, and at the United Nations. She particularly enjoys covering arts festivals from Australia, Bhutan and Borneo to Madeira, Mexico, and Morocco. Learn more about her and collaborating artist/photographer, Jon H. Davis at Northern Lights Studio, www.NLScreativemedia.com
Photo © Jon H. Davis

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