Photography by Dax Taylor
Ayoka Chenzira PhD is a recognized pioneer in Black 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, interactive digital media productions, and interactive theater productions.
Dr. Chenzira is a teaching artist at Spelman College where she serves as the Division Chair of the Arts and the Chair of the Department of Art & Visual Culture. 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.
Dr. Chenzira is perhaps best known for creating experimental films that challenge pervasive and harmful Black stereotypes and marginality. She is always experimenting with the moving image and considering new approaches to storytelling. This interest has taken various forms: creating animatiom that combines film, frame-by-frame video and computer generated imagery using Apple computer’s first MacIntosh desktop computer, embedding motion pictures into sculptural forms, or interactive cinema that combines the moving image with computer programming and is projected on to a building. However, these and other explorations are connected to her desire to centralize the voices of African American women, an audience whose stories she first heard and fell in love with in her mother’s beauty parlor.
Always interested in new forms of storytelling with the moving image, in early 2000 Dr. Chenzira 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.
Dr. Chenzira 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. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Kathleen Collins Innovator Award at the American Black Film Festival. Later that year she received the BET Her Catalyst Award for lifetime work as a filmmaker.
There have been many international retrospectives of Dr. Chenzira’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 numerous permanent collections including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In 2015, The Film Society of Lincoln Center included Dr. Chenzira films in the exhibition “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986”. In 2018, her work was included in the Brooklyn Museum’s touring exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965– 85”.
In addition to her art practice, Dr. Chenzira is a teaching artist who is one of the first African American women to teach film production in higher education. 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 cocreated the first graduate program in Media Arts Production. In 2001, Dr. Chenzira was invited to Spelman College as the first Distinguished Professor in the Arts.
Beginning 2018, Dr. Chenzira’s early films will be archived and preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Most recently, she directed a season three episode of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, which aired August 1, 2018.