The Institute of Modern Art Presents: Jenn Nkiru - REBIRTH IS NECESSARY
The Institute of Modern Art Presents: Jenn Nkiru - REBIRTH IS NECESSARY
“We need to see ourselves to know we exist,” Jenn Nkiru posited in 2017. The Nigerian director and artist was referring to her short film, REBIRTH IS NECESSARY – currently on view at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane – which marked an exciting new turn for her output, until then distinguished by viscerally charged art, music, and dance videos. Screened across North America, London, and now Australia, REBIRTH IS NECESSARY surveys the dynamism of Black culture and history. All of Nkiru’s films are similarly centred, unearthing the alternative ‘realities’ found and lived within the African diaspora. The ‘reality’ perpetuated in REBIRTH IS NECESSARY follows a personal and powerful exploration of ‘Blackness’ and the inextricable experiences associated with black lives and communities, past, present, and emerging.
REBIRTH IS NECESSARY unravels over ten minutes, with dozens of entangled and intertwined clips popping, flashing, and fading onto the screen. The film is structured around one-to-five-second audio and video materials, either revitalised from archives or filmed by Nkiru and her team in South Africa and London. During the opening sequence, our senses are immediately distorted: stylised clips flicker across the screen, razzing the artistic direction of the overall work. Following this initial tease, drums rumble and thrum, then mystical pioneer Sun Ra remarks, “We hereby declare ourselves to be another order of being … the Astro nation of the united world of Outer Space.” At once spellbinding and intimate, the audience is transported through hasty transitions of dance, frantic montages, and abstracted soundbites, each clip encapsulating the film’s sensorial orientation.
To date, Nkiru’s work has defied conventional notions of editing, story, and structure. Her first ‘formative piece’, En Vogue, filmed by Academy Award nominated cinematographer, Bradford Young and critically acclaimed artist, Arthur Jafa, documented the potent vitality of New York’s voguing and ballroom subcultures with unestablished dialogue, locations, and characters. Whilst En Vogue, marked the arrival of Nkiru’s artistic direction and mimetic tendencies, it equally launched her into a stratosphere seething with unimaginable creative possibilities.
Nkiru’s 2019 film, Black to Techno, was realised after Italian fashion house Gucci and London-based Frieze magazine inaugurated a joined film series under the title ‘The Second Summer of Love’. Black to Techno covered a period from the late 1980s into the 2000s that saw the rise of electronic music worldwide, candidly telling the story of black techno music in Detroit. It honours the sites and scenes intrinsic to the motor town’s mobile, mellifluous, and melodic identity. Turning the spotlight on Detroit’s jazz, hip-hop, soul, rock and techno culture, the film incorporates sonnets by jazz musician Onyx Ashanti and tunes from Detroit’s most celebrated musicians: Juan Atkins, Underground Resistance, Drexicya, Stacy Hale, Minx, DJ Holographic and J Dilla.
Dilla (also known as James Dewitt Nancey) is a recurring inspiration in Nkiru’s films. The hip-hop producer, MC, and multi-instrumentalist “not only helped define the sound of R&B and hip hop throughout the 1990s and early 2000s but [also] opened new avenues for live performance altogether.” Like Dilla, Nkuri has unlocked new pathways for music, art and cinema to travel to. In REBIRTH IS NECESSARY, which borrows its title from Dilla’s 2014 namesake hip-hop track, visuals and sounds are symbiotically entwined. Reconciling the film’s historic direction, samples from James Baldwin, Fred Moten, Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Kathleen Cleaver, and Alice Coltrane are played. These vocals ultimately unite black experience with history, and allow Nkiru’s ‘black magic’ to truly reign.
REBIRTH IS NECESSARY went on to win the Canal+ award at the Clermont Ferrand Film Festival, Best Documentary at the London Independent Film Festival, the Voice of a Woman award at Cannes, and the Butterfly award at the Mostra International Film Festival. The film has been screened in The Museum of Modern Art (MOCA, LA), the Tate Modern London, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London and Boston.
In 2021, Nkiru featured on Beyonce and Jay Z Carter’s music video Apeshit, as the second unit director. Filmed mostly in Paris’ Louvre, the prodigious music video adopts many of Nkiru’s most recognised tropes. Notably, her treatment of colour, light, and texture. In addition to her ongoing work with the Carters (in 2019 she co-directed Beyonce’s Black is King, and in 2021 she won the Grammy Award for her direction on Brown Skin Girl) Nkiru has directed, written, and produced videos for Kamsai Washington, Neneh Cherry, Pharrell Williams, Red Bull and J Cole. Beyond her commercial endeavours, in 2021, Nkiru was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York to produce OUT / SIDE OF TIME, as part of the exhibition: ‘Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room’.
In all her work, Nkiru bridges the gap between Black history, pop culture and art. Drawing inspiration from the MTV generation, Culture theory, her childhood in Peckham, South London, and her father’s research on the north-south divide in Nigerian politics. Nkiru constantly questions how Black life is visually embodied in music and cinema. As Nkiru states, “Whereas black film is interested in straightforward questions of representation by showing black lives on screen, cinema bakes what you’re trying to say into the process.” In Nkiru’s work we see that cinema has the power inherently to incorporate Black experience into its foundational structure and meaning.
From En Vogue to Apeshit, to Black to Techno, REBIRTH IS NECESSARY and back, Nkiru has fashioned an educational and artistic space where archival works, music, and experimental sound are in a fluid exchange. Nkiru’s enchanting stories have not only turned the tide on Black representation in cinema, but preserved the Black diaspora’s position in culture and art.
REBIRTH IS NECESSARY is on view at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane until 9 July 2022. Please also join the director for an online conversation with Australian photographer Atong Atem on 20 June 2022. Free admission.
By Rachel Weinberg
 Irenosen Okojie, “Literary Highlight | Interview: Jenn Nkiru,” Litro Magazine 162 (May 2017). URL: https://www.litromagazine.com/interviews/litro-162-literary-highlife-interview-jenn-nkiru/.
 Jenn Nkiru, Black Star: REBIRTH IS NECESSARY, 2017, Nowness, https://www.nowness.com/series/black-star/rebirth-is-necessary -jenn -nkiru.
 Okojie, “Literary Highlight | Interview: Jenn Nkiru.”
 Stadnicki, Daniel Akira. "Play like Jay: Pedagogies of drum kit performance after J Dilla." Journal of Popular Music Education 1, no. 3 (2017): 253+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed May 21, 2022).
 Harriet Fitch Little, “Past can be present,” Financial Times, London (Feb 7, 2019).
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