Moikgantsi Kgama, founder and executive director of ImageNation Foundation, talks about its mission and the importance of audience-building.
Moikgantsi, you have South African and African American roots. How did this transnational Africa-African Diaspora experience influence you?
Being half South African and half African-American has everything to do with my career choice. In my home, I was exposed to people from throughout the world. My parents had a broad mix of friends from different parts of the world. However, they raised us to be self-aware and to be proud of our Black heritage. I always saw Black heritage as one identity that manifests itself through different cultural expressions. To me Black: South Africans, African-Americans, Dominicans, Parisians, Brazilians, etc, were essentially the same. I was surprised that my peers didn’t share my view and were pretty ignorant about both African-American and Black world culture. I always felt that there was power in Black pride and in being able to identify beyond the confines of the United States. I wanted to share that power.
You are founder and executive director of ImageNation Foundation. What inspired you to create the foundation? What is its history and projects?
Well again I was inspired by my upbringing. I remember when I was about four years old, I drew a picture of a white family. My father questioned me about it. He wanted to know why – even though all of my dolls and books depicted Black people - I’d decided to draw a white family, instead of drawing a family that looked like mine. And at that young age, I realised that I had been influenced by what I saw on television, in movies and in magazines. From that day on, I created and sought images that affirmed my racial and ethnic background. In that pursuit, I discovered that I was absent from most mainstream media. I also realised that many of my peers held impoverished notions of their cultural identity and of themselves, and they lacked the positive reinforcement I received at home. Over time, I realised that this lack of representation had a long-term impact on the personal choices and professional aspirations of my Black peers.
I always had an intense love of the cultural arts. And in college, I was introduced to Marcus Garvey and his vision for the UNIA. I also took an African-American Studies course where I learned that there were more than 45 Black-owned cinemas in the US prior to integration, and that had dwindled to none. When I moved to New York City and immersed myself in the independent film community, I saw very few outlets for filmmakers of colour. I also noted that even after Black auteurs had managed to raise the funds and make beautiful films, they were in need of venues that would exhibit and market their works. These combined factors inspired me to create ImageNation, a vehicle for exhibiting and distributing progressive images of Black people worldwide through special events and a chain of boutique cinemas dedicated to progressive cinema from the African Diaspora.
The ImageNation mission states: “We edify our viewers' imaginations and galvanise their spirits with cinema, Soul Cinema.” What are the characteristics of Soul Cinema?
Soul Cinema consists of movies from any genre that explore history, examine social issues, highlight the humanity of pan-African people, stimulate the mind, and stir the spirit. Soul cinema must exhibit artistic excellence, it must interrogate, and it must inspire. It is highly stylised and it is gritty and real like James Brown and Erykah Badu; infectious like Stevie Wonder and Fela; classic like Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz; and irresistible like collard greens, maduros, fat cakes, jerk chicken and truly inspired fashion. Some recent examples: The Prep School Negro, Rise Up, Restless City, Night Catches Us, Kinyarwanda, Gun Hill Road, Pariah and Better Mus’ Come. Trailers for most of these can be found at http://imagenation.us. We’d love to hear comments.
The 2011 Reel Sister Film Festival paid tribute to you as a trailblazer, and several years ago you were named by Essence Magazine as one of 25 women who are shaping the world. Congratulations on these accomplishments! A few reflections on the role you see for yourself as visual media professional, activist!
Thank you! Ultimately, I’d like to inspire others to look outside of commercial models and vehicles to empower themselves and their communities. I’d like to influence peoples’ perceptions of Blackness and help create new ways for the global Black community to connect. And I’d like to demonstrate sustainability. In pursuing my goal to establish a chain of cinemas, I realise that intention is not enough. And it is very important that we learn how to manage resources effectively, understand fiscal and government compliance, and to raise the capital needed to support our visions and dreams. And we must build institutions so that our creations outlive us. I have been able to inspire many people with my work. The challenge will be to build this concept into a sustainable institution. Haki Madhubuti said, “One of the most revolutionary things we can do is make payroll.” So, once I figure out how to feed my community progressive images, while helping to actually feed families through sustained employment, I will have reached my goal. Ultimately, I hope to offer a model that will edify our minds, instill pride, stimulate economic development and demonstrate sustainability. On that note, every bit helps. To make a contribution please visit us at http://imagenation.us.
Audience development, your area of expertise, is becoming increasingly important, as the focus on spectatorship and audience response are key to the film industry’s interest in engaging with its viewers. What does this activity entail and how did you become interested in it?
I have been involved in the arts since I was a young girl. I used to draw, act, dance, and sing a bit. I ran a dance troupe with some friends; and I was entrepreneurial. So, developing audiences has always been integral to my efforts. It’s pointless to stage a great play, dance program or film screening if no one is there to enjoy it. So, I’ve always been promoting the arts in some way. When I started working in independent film, I saw a dearth in black film exhibition and marketing vehicles; and a natural niche for my skills. I was blessed to be a part of some really amazing projects and to work with serious arts activists like Kay Shaw and Jamal Joseph. Audience development is pretty simple. You must identify every and anyone with whom the film will resonate and then enlist their active support. By active, I mean they must become your drum majors, they must purchase tickets and they must enlist other to do the same. That’s how it works. And now, we have the Internet it’s easier to connect, but we have a lot to compete with so it’s important to offer offline experiences to support the online outreach. It’s about connecting, inspiring, passing it on, and reminding. Here we have shared the tip sheets that we distribute during our outreach campaigns. On our website, look under Restless City, Kinyarwanda and I Will Follow on http://imagenation.us.
Since the emergence of a democratic, multi-racial South Africa, a cinema representing the realities of the black majority is taking root. At the same time, South African cinema is positioning itself to be an important player on the continent. What ties does ImageNation have or would like to make in South Africa?
We presented a film festival in Mogale City, South Africa, in 2004, and we’d like to go back. Right now, we’re focused on opening our first cinema in Harlem, which will feature a monthly series called South African Cinema Now. So, we’ll offer a continuous vehicle for exposing South African cinema here in the US. We are producing a 100th Anniversary of the ANC celebration in partnership with Central Park Summer Stage on August 14th. Goapele and Yolanda Zama will perform and we’ll screen the classic Come Back Africa.
So, once we stabilise our New York venue, we’ll start implementing programs in South Africa to begin developing an audience that side. Our goal is to open our Harlem venue by the fall of this year. We are a 501c3 nonprofit and are accepting contributions for our cinema fund at http://imagenation.us/support/capital-campaign/
Interview with Moikgantsi Kgama by Beti Ellerson, May 2012.