Published  23/12/2020
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The Film London Jarman Award 2020

The Film London Jarman Award 2020

After a challenging year in view of the global pandemic, the prize named after the legendary film-maker Derek Jarman applauds six very different artists. And, for the first time in its history, the award has been split between those shortlisted

Jenn Nkiru, Project Art Works, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, Larissa Sansour, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Andrea Luka Zimmerman. The Film London Jarman Award 2020 shortlist.

by NICOLA HOMER

The Film London Jarman Award has been split between the shortlisted artists for the first time in its 13-year-history. Jenn Nkiru, Project Art Works, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, Larissa Sansour, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Andrea Luka Zimmerman will share this year’s £12,000 prize money. The announcement came on 24 November, after a collaborative decision was made by the artists, Film London and the jury for the award. The Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network team, the jury and the artists considered whether the idea of having a single winner was fair in the context of so many facing hardship in a challenging year. They agreed that sharing the award equally among the winning artists was the fairest thing they could do. The award ceremony was held online in the autumn, when the Turner Prize 2020 dropped off the calendar, as Tate awarded one-off bursaries to 10 artists in place of this year’s edition.

Adrian Wootton, the chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission, said a deciding factor in awarding the prize to all the nominated artists was that this had been an extraordinary year for the creative industries. This can be seen in the context of the global pandemic’s impact on the economy. “This year is a year like no other in terms of the creative industries, you know the artists’ world. We wanted to make sure that we recognised the importance of this artistic practice, especially in these times, which is why we decided that we would go ahead with the award and we would put it online. But, at the same time, we didn’t want to be seen to privilege one artist over another, and were concerned that people were thinking, well why would they pick winners, or a single winner, when artists are facing so many challenges. So the concept of all the artists are winners, they are all unified in their solidarity for each other, seemed to be absolutely the appropriate response for the incredible challenges the artistic community is facing, and shows real concern, solidarity and commonness of purpose, while everyone is having very distinctive visions of their own art.”

The artists said in a joint statement: “Art and artists have the power to make change and for this reason we want to share the prize as a statement of equity for the works we are all invested in making and those they give voice to … We believe that our cultural contribution takes on increased resonance, despite the difficulty of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our work stems from a multiplicity of perspectives that we cannot privilege, one over the other … We acknowledge the history of the award and also, in particular, Derek Jarman’s long-term collaborations with artists and communities and his love and care for those he worked with and among. He formed allyships across time, genres and people. In this spirit, we wish to share the award. In these times of turbulence and trauma we must build change and stand in solidarity with each other and those we represent. This gesture aligns with new directions for living and working and reflects the artists and values Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network and the judges have selected in 2020.”

The award was named after the legendary British artist and activist Derek Jarman (1942–94), who had a massive impact on the film landscape, on queer cinema and on independent cinema, according to Wootton. Great artists and performers worked with him. Isaac Julien, Colin McCabe and Tilda Swinton all collaborated with him. The avant-garde film-maker is known for his biopic of the baroque painter Caravaggio (1986), his meditative final film Blue (1993) and the cottage where he lived, which draws art aficionados to a windswept beach at Dungeness in Kent. Jarman is the inspiration for the national prize for artists working with the moving image, nominated by curators and specialists from across the UK, who usually arrive at a shortlist of six people and one winner. A bellwether for rising stars, it counts among previous winners Elizabeth Price and Laure Prouvost, who have won the Turner Prize.

Wootton said: “The Jarman Award has always tried to reflect the spirit of radicalism and distinctiveness and originality and groundbreaking innovation that Jarman absolutely embodied in his own career, from Jubilee through Caravaggio to Blue. That is reflected when you look at the range of the interestingly, all-women shortlist, which is positive and inspiring: the diversity where the artwork produced between Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Project Art Works, Jenn Nkiru, Larissa Sansour, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings is all very, very, very different … The interesting thing is the work is very different, the diversity of practice is very different, their subject matters and concerns are very different, but in this particular instance they were unequivocal in terms of solidarity and wanting to project with us this notion that there was no one winner. They were all the shortlisted winning artists, because they wanted to show that they stood equally together in this current extraordinary circumstance.”

The Danish-Palestinian artist Sansour talked about the rewards and challenges faced by the artistic community in a telephone call. “I was very honoured to be nominated for the award. It’s a very big thing for artists, particularly in the UK. I’ve lived in the UK for many years. I’ve been showing my work worldwide,” she said. “We decided to share the award because it’s been a very hard year. In my case, commissions that I’ve had were cancelled, because some institutions even closed down. I was commissioned to do a new piece for a Canadian institution called Sugar Contemporary and I think because of the lack of funding and the pandemic, they closed down, they’re not ever going to reopen. We completely find ourselves in a different world and we needed to comment on what we’re going through and how all these systems need to be revised, and hierarchies. So, we didn’t feel like we wanted to compete with one another really at such a time.”

Jarman Award 2020 trailer

In this piece, one film by each artist has been selected from their body of work nominated for the 2020 Jarman Award. You can visit Film London’s website to read more about the artworks in the virtual touring programme, which took place last month.

Sansour’s science-fiction film In Vitro (2019) visits her native Bethlehem as it presents a dystopian exploration of the nation state. Nkiru’s Black to Techno (2019) shows the power of music to travel and to inspire, as it looks at Detroit as the birthplace of techno and charts its reception in Berlin. Williams Gamaker presents House of Women (2017) as a response to the 1947 film Black Narcissus. Quinlan and Hastings play with music and performance in their film In my Room (2020), exploring Birmingham’s gay scene. Sounds of nature from Scotland emerge in Project Works’s Illuminating the Wilderness (2019), which features collaborators from neuro-diverse backgrounds. Luka Zimmerman’s Civil Rites (2017) takes as its starting point Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech, delivered on receipt of his honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle. The work features imagery of places of protest in the city and accompanying texts about campaigns for justice, for example a rally by a suffragette campaigner.

Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind, In Vitro, 2019 (Excerpt). Two-channel film, 28 min

The extraordinary quality of the films is testimony to the ability to overcome adversity. Sansour has won international acclaim for In Vitro, part of an installation, Heirloom, commissioned for the Danish Pavilion for the 2019 Venice Biennale, and now the subject of a solo exhibition in Umeå, Sweden. She had a troubled background, growing up at the time of the first Palestinian intifada. In 1988, she found herself in a situation similar to that of many people across the world this year, who have had to adapt their lives to the global pandemic: she experienced a lockdown, and could not travel or go to school. The artist speaks of the 1948 exodus of Palestinian people and their desired return to their homeland. To sum up a central theme of the film, she explores the concept of the nation state, which she considers to be relatively new to world history.

The black-and-white science-fiction film traces the footprints of an environmental disaster. The viewer can see black oil apparently flooding the streets of Bethlehem and eventually the Church of the Nativity, which then appears to blow up. A symbol of the biblical town, the church is believed to be where Jesus Christ was born. In the storyline, a group of fighters flees to an underground nuclear reactor, transformed into an orchard. The focus shifts to a dialogue between the orchard’s ailing founder, Dunia, and her successor, Alia, a clone who came into being thanks to the remnants of Dunia’s child, who died during the apocalypse. Alia has never seen the face of the Earth, but is told stories of a previous generation. “The film touches on what is real and what is fictional. So, one’s reality is not the same as the other’s reality. It talks about the tension between those two generations, which then becomes applicable to generations in a wider world,” said Sansour.

Michelle Williams Gamaker, House of Women, 2017 (Exerpt). 16mm film transferred to HD video

Williams Gamaker’s House of Women (2017) is part of a trilogy from her recent body of work – the sequel is The Fruit Is There to be Eaten (2018) and the final instalment is The Eternal Return (2019). The film can be read as a response to the 1947 film Black Narcissus, by the film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. As a beginning, the artist reflected on the point of view of a silent Indian dancing maid, Kanchi, who she said was “a stereotypical depiction of a lower-working-class woman”. In the 1947 film, Jean Simmons, a white actor, was cast in the minor role of Kanchi: she wore brown pan-stick makeup, a jewel in her nose and colourful clothes. When Williams Gamaker first watched this film as a teenager in the 1990s, she identified with the figure, as she was South-Asian, and there was a paucity of such characters on film and television at that time. On returning to the film object in her work, she foregrounds the idea that marginalised figures can find their way back to become protagonists and tell their own stories.

The premise for House of Women was to recast Kanchi for the 21st century, as someone who could speak to the politics of her time. Only Indian expatriate or first-generation British Asian women and non-binary individuals were auditioned for the role. The black box studio in which the audition is filmed has an intense effect. “My choice of lighting and cinematography aims to isolate them in their telling of their own personal histories,” said Williams Gamaker. “In a way, the film puts them in an uncomfortable situation, and yet, hopefully, the film shows they are able to transcend that structural inequality and find the voice that they have.”

Drawing on writings of the author Susan Sontag, she explored the shared vocabulary of photography and hunting, for example the word “shooting”, with origins that can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when men travelled to Africa to hunt and document this activity. But she acknowledged that hunting is part of “an ecological travesty”, seen in the endangered species today. “That language of photography translates into an interesting question of how people of colour specifically are represented in films today and films of the past. My specific interest is films of the late 1930s and 40s because they’re so structurally problematic and it gives me a lot of space to revisit what I call a fictional activism, where I try to address those historical wrongs and to find alternatives to these problematic setups,” said Williams Gamaker.

Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, In My Room, 2020 (Trailer)

The artistic duo Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings address power structures. Their artworks nominated for the 2020 Jarman Award are In My Room (2020) and Something for the Boys (2018). The first was commissioned as part of their solo show with Focal Point Gallery, which opened in February and featured graphite drawings, a fresco and an artwork inspired by the facade of Bar Jester, the closed  Birmingham gay bar depicted in the film. This looks at how architecture and gentrification shapes the city. “In My Room explores UK male sex culture, linking this to a broader phenomenon of male dominance within society and thinking socially and historically about how public sex culture has shaped and gendered urban architecture and public space,” they said. The title In My Room was inspired by a song by Jesse Hultberg and the work considers the extent of male power in society, in private and public spaces. In My Room was shot principally in two gay bars in Birmingham and a bleak military fort and a wooded area in Essex, yet its ending features the only woman in the film, the dancer Lucille Marshall, questioning the role of women in public space. The duo are delighted to share the award. “It was humbling to be shortlisted alongside such talented and experienced film-makers. This year competing as a group to ‘win’ the award was never an option: instead, we worked together to build solidarity and share ideas, all the while supported by the fantastic team at Film London. The process has been very enriching.”

Project Art Works, Illuminating the Wilderness, 2019 (Excerpt)

One unifying strand in the winning artists’ works can be seen in the diversity and inclusion of works of others. Consider Illuminating the Wilderness by Project Art Works, an artist-led organisation in Hastings, East Sussex, where a group of 20 people, including six neuro-divergent collaborators and people who supported them, made a trip to the Scottish Highlands in autumn 2018. The organisation’s artist director and CEO, Kate Adams, who has an MBE for services to art and disability, talked about her son, who joined the group. He has autism and is very interested in landscape. The film was made in Glen Affric, on the site of a Caledonian forest, which suffered deforestation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The area is undergoing a process of rewilding by an organisation called Trees for Life, which has planted more than a million trees in Glen Affric during the last few years.

The idea of “wilderness” can be read as a fictional metaphor rather than a reality, facilitating discussion on cultural inclusion. The exhibition of Illuminating the Wilderness launched Explorers 2019, the culmination of a three-year programme that put at its heart neuro-diverse communities, artists and makers, where Project Art Works collaborated with cultural organisations in the UK and Australia. In spring 2019, the film was shown at MK Gallery and Tate Liverpool. They travelled to Sydney, where they worked in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, as part of The Big Anxiety, an international arts festival that brought together artists, scientists and communities in autumn that year.

Moving on to talk about the 2020 Jarman Award-winners, Adams said: “All of us as artists mainly film with varying subjects that touch on representation and we have all collaborated with different communities who have experienced prejudice and marginalisation … We understood the artistic output of those collaborative approaches were all very different and unique in their own right, so that as artists we didn’t really want to comply with the systems of power really that exclude different groups. And we’re not saying that that is what the Jarman Award has done, but we felt very strongly that we wanted to stand in solidarity with each other and with the communities we represent.”

Jenn Nkiru, BLACK TO TECHNO, 2019 (Teaser)

Back to the international art world, Black to Techno (2019), by the British-Nigerian artist and director Nkiru, received its premiere at Frieze Los Angeles last year. At the time of writing, she was unavailable for comment. So, let’s turn to the film, which brings a dynamic energy as the camera travels from the Ford car factory’s assembly lines to streets pulsing with life. The viewer can see glimpses of Detroit, which is a centre of the car industry, but has been a place of economic hardship and racial tension in previous years. Now, Detroit is growing as a hub of innovation. Nkiru has described the city as “dynamic, resilient and full of soul”. In this Afro-surrealist film, she moves from the creation of techno in Detroit’s young black community, drawing parallels with the city’s industrial production lines, to its mainstream reception in Berlin. In signposting the journey of the music genre from its underground roots into club culture, Nkiru invites the viewer to reach new depths of understanding. “Techno is not just a musical gesture, but a philosophical, sonic and anthropological one,” she has written. “I hope this film shifts the mainstream understanding of this incredible sound and encourages audiences to ask questions and dig deeper.”

Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Adrian Jackson, Here for Life 2019, (Trailer by Andrew Kotting, Artangel)

The virtual tour culminated in a weekend of online events, featuring talks with the artists, which took place on 14 and 15 November, in partnership with the Whitechapel Gallery, as the Film London Jarman Award Weekend. At that time, Luka Zimmerman premiered Art Class (2020), related to the different practices of the shortlisted winning artists. The film is by turns playful, serious and intellectual. When she presents to camera at the ending, she talks about the poetry of Dionne Brand to sum up societal concerns. The film conveys resilience in addressing real challenges faced by young artists from working-class backgrounds, as they enter the world of cultural production. “In our culture, we don’t have a table where everyone can sit around it yet,” she said. "So, the conversation happens between some people but not everybody, and when you have many people around the table, the conversations are more difficult, right? But then they become truly alive.”

Together with the other winning artists of the 2020 Jarman Award – Project Art Works, Nkiru, Sansour, Williams Gamaker and Quinlan and Hastings – Luka Zimmerman has contributed to a memorable year for the award, in which they have shown strength in diversity and solidarity in the face of adversity. Everybody is a winner.

Studio International links

Interview with the 2019 Jarman Award-winner Hetain Patel

Interview with the 2018 Jarman Award-winner Daria Martin

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