Ayoka Chenzira: Cinema Pioneer Masters the Art of Multitasking

Many of Ayoka Chenzira’s films today are in permanent collections including MOMA and some have been translated into French and Japanese.

Historically, American parents discourage their children from being a jack of all trades for fear of becoming a master of none, says award winning and internationally acclaimed filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira (Ayo).

Yet, success in today’s world favors the ace of plenty. Fortunately, Ayo is all that and more: she’s a pioneer of African-American cinema, one of the first African Americans to teach film production in higher education, and the first African American to earn a PhD in Digital Media Arts from Georgia Tech. On November 2 at Buckhead Theatre, she will appear on the TEDxPeachtree stage as an interactive digital media artist and transmedia storyteller.

“Transmedia storytelling is a way of telling stories by using different media platforms,” says Ayo, whose body of work includes more than 25 fiction, documentary, animation and experimental films. “Parts of the story can be on a specific website while other parts can be accessed through a smartphone or on FaceBook, Instagram, etc. If you look around most people are doing more than one thing. They’re on phone while in conversation with someone else and also looking at some other screen. This is not the linear way of being in the world for which most people have been trained.”

Ayo’s background seems to have positioned her well for engaging the modern audience and embracing convergence. Citing her mother as a tremendous and supportive influence, Ayo initially majored in film because the field allowed pursuance of her own multiple curiosities.

“As a young person I was interested in many disciplines: film, music, dance, and anthropology,” she says. “I also grew up in a community that has been redefined as Colored, Negro, Black, African-American, but not always human, and some of that experience shapes my work.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Ayo went to New York City where she studied film at NYU and education at Columbia’s Teacher College. While teaching at the City College of New York, she figuratively entered “The Academy.” There, in addition to writing, producing and directing one of the first 35-mm films by an African American woman, Alma’s Rainbow, Ayo cofounded City College’s graduate program and served as its Chair of Media and Communication Arts.

In 2001 Ayo came to Atlanta when Spelman College invited her to serve as the first William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professor in the Arts. Inspired by the large number of students on Spelman’s campus making mini films with software such as iMovie, Ayo created the award winning Digital Moving Image Salon (DMIS) program. In addition to research DMIS students construct documentary films.

Like a multi-armed deity, Ayo stays true to the metaphor of mastering multiplicity. Along with her work at Spelman and lecturing around the world on topics such as the history of American cinema and cinema technology, she also has many prestigious film projects wrapping up and currently in the works. One is the Pearl Cleage Film Project for production of Cleage’s novel Babylon Sisters. Another is the production of HER. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and due out on computers everywhere in 2013, the speculative fiction work is part film and part interactive game.

Ayo also advocates. Her interactive art installation Ordinary On Any Given Day features Skype interviews of prolific activists and changemakers around the world sharing what they do to improve social justice.

Although Ayo holds no specific loyalty to any one region, she says she very much likes being in Atlanta. Recently, she toured Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB). “GPB is one of the best kept secrets in Atlanta,” says Ayo. “It’s a phenomenal resource as far as equipment and what they can offer producers.”

Watch Ayo’s TEDx Talks here.


Author: Rachel Bailey, Creative Corp.