Dubbed by Indiewire as one of the 6 Avant-Garde Female Filmmakers Who Redefined Cinema and currently a Guggenheim and MacDowell Colony Fellow, award-winning Ghanaian-American Filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu, is making a name for herself in the indie film scene. The complex relationship being of African and American descent, grappling what it means to be female and queer identities are some of the recurring themes in her pieces.
Akosua not only identifies as a creative but also an entrepreneur with her film production company Obibini Pictures, acquiring the exclusive rights to produce on Monday Of Last Week, an adaptation of a short story of the same name from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.
We reached out to Akosua to discuss extensively about her background, accomplishments, process and upcoming projects, oh and everything else in between.
It is so exciting to finally get this chat with you. Seems the last few months have been overwhelming?
Yes! It can get overwhelming. I know we have been trying to connect for a while now. Sometimes I get so busy I can hardly keep up with myself.
Lets take it back to where it all started, the very beginning. Birth, siblings, family?
Sure, we can talk about that. Well, yeah, I was born on New Year’s Day. At the time of my birth, my Dad was visiting family in Ghana and doing the necessary paperwork to bring my older siblings to America. While my mother was pregnant with me, she worked as a nanny for a lawyer couple, and she worked part-time at a Marriott hotel in Virginia. I was supposed to be born around the first week of March but I came two months early, on New Year’s Day around 2:19 in the morning. So, I ended up being the first child born in Northern Virginia in 1984. I guess I was rushing to make my entrance into the world or something!
I know you started your creative journey in printmaking and sculpture installations. At what point did you discover filmmaking and what influenced this transition?
I’ve been creative for as long as I can remember. When I went to college at the University of Virginia, I took drawing, printmaking and sculpture. I had no real plans to become a filmmaker. In my sophomore year of college I declared film as my major and began using film as my main medium. Kevin Jerome Everson, was offering 16 millimeter cinematography courses in the University of Virginia’s art program. I declared a major in Media Studies because it seemed to be a more practical major. I also declared a major in art with printmaking and cinematography as my concentration. I produced a number of experimental films by graduation to apply to grad school. I went to California, because I thought that was where I should be if I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to CalArts and got a Masters in Film/Video and Fine Art.
A lot of your work mirrors your experiences as a Ghanaian American exploring the gap between Africa and the diaspora. Tell us more about growing up in America.
There is something about the freedom of being an American that I value more as I get older. When I started making films in college in Virginia and even grad school in California, I felt disconnected from my environment. Having overbearing Ghanaian parents didn’t help my situation either. Choosing a career in a creative industry was not an option in my family. We were all supposed to go into law or medicine, something respectable and lucrative. Growing up as a creative individual in a traditional and immigrant family was really hard, and caused a bit of an identity crisis. I started traveling to Ghana to connect more with my African heritage. Making films in Ghana afforded me the opportunity to grow into my identity and flush out those anxieties of wanting to find a place to connect to. It’s weird because I didn’t notice it until recently but when I’m making films in America, the subjects in my films are looking to the continent of Africa and when I’m producing films in Ghana, I’m calling America my home. I guess subconsciously, I’m working out those anxieties in my films.
So how did you come into your awareness of the triple consciousness?
In college, I was exposed to a lot of postcolonial and cultural theory in Media Studies. I wanted to find a way to explore these ideas in my printmaking work and then eventually in film. In the beginning, I was using black hair culture and the cultural practice of hair styling as a metaphor for the double consciousness that W.E.B Du Bois addresses in his text the Souls of Black Folks. The “triple consciousness” is a space that I use as my focal point for making films and art work. As a Pan-Africanist and cultural activist, the “triple consciousness” is my rendering of Du Bu Bois’ theory and creating a third consciousness that is all inclusive of other “consciousness” like women, queer identities and Africans in the diaspora.
I love how you experiment with different processes in your film making. How relevant is this for you especially in an industry where African films are usually stereotyped a certain way?
You know, it’s very relevant for me to experiment and stay fresh with different processes in my film work, especially as an African and black American filmmaker. And, I’ve been able to navigate different filmmaking styles like avant-garde and niche African appealing to wider audiences. I don’t create in this way out of a desire to be “different”, I’m sort of experimenting, and working to discover my own filmmaking language and a system that works for me. Film is my process of creating, like a painter with a canvas. I remember there were many times when I would complain about finding it difficult to articulate what I was doing with my work, especially in art school critiques. One mentor gave me the best advice, he said “Adoma, if you’re having trouble speaking about the work, then just make good work and let other people talk about it.” That advice sort of lit a fire within me. I learned that I didn’t have to make work to please any specific audience. I just had a make work. So, I started making films with the 16 mm format. Now, I’m working primarily in Super-8 format because it’s more convenient and allows me to experiment with memories on film. But my ultimate goal is to direct narrative fiction films. Experimenting with different filmmaking processes is my way of trying to achieve my goals in the film industry. The best thing about being a filmmaker of the avant-garde is that there isn’t a right or wrong way of making films. There is no stereotype in avant-garde because there is no singular type, and this has allowed my work to transcend stereotypes and exist within many sections of the film and art industry. I focus on making the work and getting it out there without thinking too much about the industry or the audience. I like having that freedom – it’s rewarding and empowering.
2015 was a big year for you. Your films were screened all over the world, you were a recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship among many other wins. How have these recognitions impacted you creatively?
2015 was insane! There seems to be something big happening for me every year! I will say that the Guggenheim allowed me to re-evaluate my process of working and invest in producing new bodies of work, where I could hire the people I wanted to work with and have full creative control. After moving from Ghana, I wanted to produce a fiction short film in New York where I’m currently based. With the help of the Guggenheim fellowship from last year, I successfully optioned the rights to On Monday of Last Week, a short story by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m working on a film project adapted from her work. I’m so honored to have the opportunity of translating her words into moving images and to produce another fiction film with themes that I’m very passionate about.
It is common among creatives to get stuck in a process. How do you get your creative juices flowing in that situation?
When I’m feeling stuck and need to get my creative juices flowing I tend to have to put the process aside and shift my focus to something else. I also enjoy working on multiple projects at a time, so when one project isn’t doing it for me, I can easily shift my focus on another and revisit it at a later time. I’m a bit of a micromanager and I can get be obsessive about ideas and task at times. Sometimes, I’ll obsess on an idea and start fleshing it out with people who are closest to me. I value their opinion, and they keep me in check when I’m focused on the wrong things.
It could get busy being a filmmaker and running a film company at the same time. How do you take out time to be still?
I’ve been living like a vagabond for so many years. I never quite felt settled or at home and it’s only until recently that I’m learning how to make time for self-care. I’m slowly learning how to live, get out of my head, release anxieties and just be present. It’s been a process. I recently bought a record player and I’ve been learning how to make use of it, instead of it just being in my apartment like some cool accent piece. Now, when I want to take a moment, I’ll just lay on my couch in my apartment listening to the few records that I have. At first, I would just work on the floor and then when I bought a couch, I worked my way up to working on the couch and the dining table. Now, I finally have an office space set up so I take full advantage of the home I finally have. It has taken a long time to build, and I am still building but I am encouraged by the steady progress. I also enjoy having a routine. I wake up every morning, make my coffee and breakfast, water my plants, turn on my MUJI aroma diffuser and get to work. In my apartment in the Bronx, I bought about 27 different plants and keeping them alive is such a task. It’s so funny because I have a friend who helped me curate my apartment, and sometimes I’ll call her stressing every time I notice a leaf dying and I’m like “girl, my plants are dying” and she has to keep reminding me that falling leaves is a natural process.
You get to travel a lot because of your line of work. Can you share with me some of your travel essentials?
Honestly, some of my travel essentials in my purse are wet ones and hand sanitizer. I also have two favorite things in the Iman cosmetic line that I cannot live without. I’ve always had a hard time finding makeup that blends well with my skin type, so I always have at least one IMAN second-to-none foundation stick in my purse to cover up blemishes for a quick flawless look without having too much makeup on. I also have a thick blue eyeshadow pencil from the IMAN brand that I use to accentuate my eyes. I love the smokey eye look on dark skin and it can be applied easily with a Q-tip and blends well with my finger.
Whats the classic Adoma outfit?
I don’t think I have a classic Adoma outfit yet and my style is constantly evolving. I’ve been exploring different clothes and brands that could represent my style, especially now that I’ve moved from Ghana to the New York. In Ghana, looking polished is a big deal. It wasn’t until living in Ghana after winning the African Movie Academy Award, that I started focusing more on my style. These things didn’t really matter much to me but they seem to matter more as a public figure – I’m constantly being judged by my presentation. But, one thing that I can say is that has never really changed is my hairstyle, which is usually in twists. Back in the day, I wore my hair in braids out of convenience, so this has became part of my classic “outfit”. And, I started shaping my style around my hair in braids. Having braids or twists gives me a sense of control and something I don’t have to worry about. Living in New York and being surrounded by so many naturalistas has gotten me to appreciate wearing my hair out more, especially in the summer.
What is the one film you think everyone should see at least once?
Even though I make films, I don’t consider myself a cinephile and I don’t watch a lot of movies, it’s really embarrassing. But, one film I think everyone should see at least once is Black Girl or La Noire de by Ousmane Sembene. It’s a classic and a source of inspiration for my upcoming feature, Black Sunshine. In fact, I want to say Black Sunshine is sort of paying homage to Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl. It’s is truly one of my favorite movies.
Are there any afro indie brands you can’t get enough of?
Right now, I’m really into a brand called Osei-Duro. They’re based in Ghana and Los Angeles. While living in Ghana, I got to know their initiative and what they’re doing for local textile producers. I love how they dye and print on silk fabrics, so I enjoy wearing their brand. I know Balmain isn’t really an Afro indie brand, but it’s definitely another brand that I love. When I graduated from CalArts in 2008, it was in the heart of the rescission. I mean I had two Masters degrees and I was traveling internationally with my film work, but I worked part-time in Chinatown DC at H&M for extra cash. H&M was my first retail job ever and a lot of the money I made from that job went back to the store! Half of my wardrobe is from H&M. Last year, I got a Balmain outfit for Christmas and it’s definitely one of my favorite pieces in my closet. I love the whole vibe of Balmain, especially on Black people.
What would you say to people who are interested in your line of work?
I would say that everyone’s path to success is different. Following your own journey, will allow you to become successful at whatever you are supposed to be. While it looks like I have a number of accolades, I’ve applied to some film initiatives, wanting to be an “industry darling” in mainstream film, and received rejection letters almost every year for ten years. But, I kept thinking that if I participate in these programs, like other filmmakers and producers who I admire, I would be just as successful or end up getting the same recognition as them. In retrospect, I know that I was focused on the wrong things, comparing myself and my path to other filmmakers. I had to work hard to mature in my craft and find creative ways to break through. I’m learning to master the art of storytelling and creating opportunities for for myself to produce the films that I want to see.
You recently went to Vietnam, don’t ask me how I know (lol). Is this in connection with a new project?
Are you e-stalking me? [laughing] Yes, I did go to Vietnam! My childhood best friend and her family were going back to Vietnam after having not been back since she was young. She was going with her whole family – her husband and her kids, her brother and his wife, her mom and dad – everybody! She randomly asked me if I wanted to go and I said “I can’t just go to Vietnam?!”, but then I gave it a second thought and decided to go with them and make a film! To practice shooting. So, my trip to Vietnam is in connection with a new documentary essay that I’m working on called A Wondrous Assemblage. The film is my rendering of Vietnamese filmmaker, Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s film Reassemblage. It’s a film that is referenced a lot in the arts, and feminist and cultural theory about post-colonialism. It sort of aligns with the films I make in Ghana. Creatively, it’s a pretty amazing time for me because the universe is putting new opportunities in my path to produce new work. I’m shifting away from making films about my personal experience, and now my greatest sources of inspiration are coming from stories that parallel or reflect my own across different communities and cultures.