Spotlight: Ella Cooper on Resistance and Reclamation of Black Bodies

Still from V-Formation (Video Installation)

This month, we highlight Ella Cooper, who is an award-winning independent filmmaker, photo-video artist, educator, impact producer, consultant and programmer based in Toronto who has been working in the arts and culture sector for over 17 years while emerging in her practice as a photo-video artist. Her creative work explores the diaspora, the creation of positive representations of the Black body in Canada, equity and arts for social change, community storytelling, contemporary dance and hybrid identity. She is also the founder of Black Women Film! Canada a new initiative and leadership program supporting the development of emerging Black women filmmakers.

How did your media-making career start?

I’ve always been involved in the arts. My parents have always been supportive of me as an artist. I grew up dancing, and painting and drawing. In school, I got into photography, photoshop, and film. I made a lot of funny little experimental films before realizing that’s what I wanted to do and then I got into Ryerson for new media.

I would say that the arts have always been a part of my education. I think that’s when you know you’re that passionate — when it doesn’t feel like a hobby, but the way you need to express yourself.

Can you talk about the common or overlapping themes in your work?

Some of the overarching themes would be around representation and reclamation of Black female bodies when it comes to dominant visual culture and Western art. Other themes are Black joy, contemporary dance, diaspora, Black Canadian identity, land and what it represents metaphorically and movement. I coined a term “Embodied elated resistance” and that’s what I try to do in my nudes and a lot of the work I do in community.

It’s also about placing our Brown and Black bodies unabashedly into spaces where we are not truly represented or seen. And also, on our own terms, as opposed to trying to fit within the status quo. There’s this opportunity to claim space with this embodied, elated pride, joy, sense of self.

Embodied Land Ecstatic 2017

Can you talk about how these themes translate into the different mediums that you work in?  

The mediums that I work in primarily are photo and video. I do everything from video installation to independent film, to dance photography, to portraiture and exploration of nudes. But I also use vocal work, theatre, dance and drawing as a tool to come up with these visions or to facilitate groups to tap into their own forms of creative expression as well.

I’m really interested in embodied inquiry: how can you use your whole body or many different art forms as a process that leads to these images and films being created? The process, I’ve come to realize, is really important to the final piece. Sometimes it’s evident, other times it’s not evident.

Can you explain the inspiration behind your series Ecstatic Nudes?

A couple years back, I became interested in representation of the Black female body in Western art. Prior to this, I was really interested in representation, Canadian identity and hybrid identity. I’m someone whose mixed race so I think that’s where it stemmed from. I went to Vancouver to get my masters and I was really struck by the sense of blacklessness in the Canadian landscape. It’s a super epic landscape, rolling mountains — like Canada’s poster child and I became aware of who gets represented in this space. It’s usually white men at the top of a mountain, or it’s the Canadian mounties, just a lot of Canadian stereotypes. I started to grapple with that and I started doing research on Saartjie Baartman — otherwise known as Hottentot Venus,  and how she was one of the first Black women who was introduced into European society as a spectacle. She was paraded around for her “large buttocks and vaginal flap” – those were actually the words. That was the first introduction to Black female body in Western, European society. And when she died, they dissected her and put those parts of her body on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until there was uproar, and they took it down.

It’s looking at where the objectification and sexualization of Black bodies began, and how that plays out in Western art. From reading that, I became really interested in the artists who were overturning this, creating new narratives, and noticing who are the Black women artists that are creating these new narratives. I thought, well if there aren’t positive nudes being created by the women themselves, then I’m going to go make some. So i’ve been in this process of doing different projects, like the Body Land Identity project to now the Ecstatic Nudes project that has led into these reflections, of what it means to reclaim the body. What is embodied elated resistance? How do you reclaim your body from a place of ecstasy and joy? It’s been about 6 years of exploring this particular theme in different ways.

I also use my own body as a site of inquiry. I am interested in reclamation and how it always starts with you. The things that you discover, learn and embody, you can then offer to others.

Embodied Land Ecstatic 2017

Can you talk about what inspired you to create the Black Women Film! Collective?

I founded Black Women Film Canada as a way of creating a really professional dedicated space to build community, create more access and to support the development of Black women filmmakers and media artists. We’ve had some amazing partners like TIFF, NFB and CFC and receive funding from the Ontario and Canada Arts Councils. It’s been really exciting to see it grow. At first, it was just a leadership program, now it’s a collective too. We also now offer master classes, partnered screenings, workshops and I get invited to do talks on behalf of Black Women Film.

My other programs are about facilitating more spaces for people to have their own voice through photography and video. I get invited internationally to do equity based facilitation work and creative facilitation. I enjoy working with different groups in that capacity. I like teaching, facilitating and consulting. I wear many hats but essentially they all fall under this theme of positive social change, and representation and community development as a way of forming solidarity and change within dominant culture.

Ecstatic Nudes

What do you hope to accomplish through Black Women Film?

What I’m seeing is that it’s a catalyst. It’s brought Black women together to become collaborators and make new work. They’ve created new collectives, new films, new initiatives. It’s a community of support. I’m also seeing people gaining more access to industry professionals and opportunities. There isn’t so much of a divide anymore. I’d like it to continue to build so that people aren’t so shocked when they see how many of us are creating work. Black Women Film is creating an amazing community of support but simultaneously it’s about busting down those doors and making it easy for everyone to collaborate with some of the old guard. Working with allies, working with the larger industry, and the media arts sector as a whole. It’s about supporting each other as we enter into these spaces where we’re not present yet.