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Ayoka Chenzira

Ayoka Chenzira is a recognized pioneer in Black independent cinema with a lengthy and committed history to independent and experimental media making. An award-winning artist, she creates with the moving image through filmmaking and interactive digital media productions.

Ayoka is perhaps best known for creating experimental films that challenge pervasive and harmful Black stereotypes and marginality. “I am always experimenting with the moving image and considering new approaches to storytelling.  This interest has taken various forms: creating an animated film that combines traditional cell animation with applications for Apple’s first desktop computer, embedding motion pictures into sculptural forms, or interactive cinema that combine the moving image with computer programming and is projected on to a building.  However, these and other explorations are connected to my desire to centralize the voices of African American women, an audience whose stories I first heard and fell in love with in my mother’s beauty parlor,” she says.

One of the first African American women to write, produce, and direct a 35mm feature film, Alma’s Rainbow [1993].  The film was developed at Sundance, photographed in ten days, produced for $350,000 and made history when it appeared on Billboard Magazine’s top forty home video rentals.  Ayoka is also one of the first female animator with Hair Piece: a film for nappyheaded people [1984] and Zajota & the Boogie Spirit [1989], one of the first independent films to combine film, frame-by-frame video and computer generated imagery and using Apple computer’s first MacIntosh desktop computer.  

Always interested in new forms of storytelling with the moving image, in early 2000, Ayoka began exploring how digital technologies could be used to support her interactive cinema stories. Her work in this area has been exhibited at international conferences in the U.S., Europe and Asia.  The genesis of this work is featured as part of Ayoka's 2012 TEDx talk Revel in the Physical. Her groundbreaking interactive cinema project, HERadventure, produced with her daughter HAJ, is a feminist film/game that is a sci-fi story with a Black female protagonist premiered at South-by-Southwest and has been shown around the world at international festivals and conferences.

Ayoka has garnered many awards, grants and fellowships. She is the recipient of a Sony Innovator Award for her early work with converging film, video and computer animation, and later, the Apple Computer Distinguished Educator Award for her work with storytelling and digital technology and a National Endowment for the Arts award. In 2017, she received the Georgia Institute of Technology Distinguished Alumni Pioneer Award.

There have been many international retrospectives of Ayoka’s films and several of her productions have been translated into French and Japanese. Her films have been screened internationally in theatres as well as broadcast on public television and are in permanent collections including the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which featured her animated film, Hair Piece: a film for nappyheaded in its 2015 exhibition, “America Is Hard to See”, as part of the inauguration of the museum’s new building.

In 2015, The Film Society of Lincoln Center included Ayoka work in “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986”. In 2018, her early work was included in the Brooklyn Museum’s touring exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965– 85”.

Ayoka’s interactive theater projects, produced with her daughter HaJ, with whom she sometimes collaborates, incorporate audiences live tweets as part of the performance narrative and production design and have been featured in theater festivals and off-Broadway.

In addition to her art practice, Ayoka is a teaching artist who is one of the first African American women to teach film production in higher education.  She is a graduate of New York University (B.F.A. Film), Columbia University/Teachers College (M.A. Education) and is the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Digital Media from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has taught filmmaking to emerging filmmakers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa through MNET Television, the largest creator of media content throughout Africa. At the City College of New York, she co-created the first graduate program in Media Arts Production.  In 2001, Ayoka was invited to Spelman College as the first Distinguished Professor in the Arts.  She later founded the Digital Moving Image Salon (DMIS) to teach Spelman woman documentary filmmaking and digital media production with the moving image.  Currently, Ayoka is the Division Chair for the Arts, Chair of the Department of Art & Visual Culture, and chairs the President’s ARTS@Spelman initiative. She spearheaded the creation of new majors in documentary filmmaking and photography, revised arts curriculums, redesigned the focus of the arts to highlight original storytelling by students and added digital technologies as part of the artistic practice. 

Beginning 2018, Ayoka's early films will be archived and preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Most recently, Ayoka directed a season three episode of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, which will air August 1st.