One of the first Black women to write, produce, and direct a feature film – and to create animation – Dr. Ayoka “Ayo” Chenzira will direct the upcoming performance of The Urban Chameleons with Funnel Cake Flowers, starring creator HaJ. Ayo was first inspired toward her path of digital media artistry by listening to the stories of women in the beauty parlor owned by her mother, from whom she received her first camera at the age of 17.
“I was privy at a very early age to women’s oral narratives,” Ayo told rolling out in an exclusive interview. “Everything from joy and celebration to loss and heartbreak, these things I heard daily … People felt safe to talk [at the beauty parlor], but as a kid, it was fascinating to hear how scary and complicated the world of women was and is.”
The insightful teen Ayo saw opportunity in the absent depictions of women like her mother’s clients on television, and she readily yielded to the pull of film school, taking her from her hometown of Philadelphia to hone her craft at prestigious institutions like New York University, Columbia University, and Georgia Institute of Technology, launching an innovative career as a pioneer in filmmaking.
“When I got to film school, I didn’t realize that what I knew and experienced in my mother’s beauty parlor was not common knowledge in the larger world,” Ayo said as she recalled her early experiences and her thinking at the time that she had found a calling in creating documentaries about terminally ill Black people. “I discovered that my imagination was larger than where the documentary film format as a genre was at that time. I found it too limiting, and so I discovered something that I wanted to talk about, that I felt passionately about, and that was only going to work for animation. It was a satirical film that I did called Hair Piece: a film for nappy headed people and the inspiration for that was living in Brooklyn at a time when Black people were wearing shower caps on their heads — and they were everywhere … this was the age of the Jheri curl.”
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York purchased Hair Piece, the first-ever animated film by a Black woman, and it can be found in several other prestigious museums and galleries around the world. The Spelman College professor is also a recipient of the Sony Innovator Award for converging film, video and computer animation; and the Apple Computer Distinguished Educator Award for her work with storytelling and digital technology.
“I am in conversation with stories, but I’m also in conversation with technology … trying to figure out how you make something do something else other than how it’s marketed,” said Ayo.
That trailblazing spirit still burns brightly in Ayo today, as she directs her passionate focus toward taking moving images out of the traditional theater setting and into more futuristic interactive movies and games. She excitedly described how technology has recently progressed enough to significantly enhance her work with daughter HaJ to bring the interactive story of Funnel Cake Flowers to life.
“Finally, I’m finding that my imagination and HaJ’s imagination can manifest itself in real-time quicker, and that has been great to experiment with,” said Ayo.
The duo will debut a private premiere performance of The Urban Chameleons with Funnel Cake Flowers this Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, at 7 p.m., but audiences can also live-stream the performance on Tickles.TV, and join the discussion on Twitter using #ticklestvFCFLIVESHOW.