‘Seen the invisible: Maya Deren’s experiments in cinematic trance’

Mollona, Massimiliano. 2014. ‘Seen the invisible: Maya Deren’s experiments in cinematic trance’. October, 149(Summer), pp. 159-180. ISSN 0162-2870 [Article]

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In July 1791, the story goes, a small voodoo gathering in Santo Domingo sparked the Haitian Revolution, the first black anti-colonial revolution in history. The glorious history of the “Republic of the black Jacobins” was often celebrated by Surrealist artists in New York and Paris in their exposé of the decadent state of colonial powers in the aftermath of the Second World War. For instance, Haiti is central to André Breton's anti-colonial manifesto, Aimé Cesaire's idea of negritude, Rudy Burckhardt's lyric film symphonies, and Zora Neale Hurston's novels on creole culture. In New York, negritude did not have quite the same revolutionary appeal as in Paris, where Josephine Baker was hailed as a Surrealist goddess of “natural” beauty and power. But the electric Haitian voodoo performances of dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham attracted a diverse community of African-American artists, émigrés, intellectuals, and communist sympathizers in the off-limits clubs, cafés, and private parties in Harlem. In its uncontainable, carnivalesque power, open forms, and sexual energy, Haitian voodoo captured an attraction to the “primitive” that affected American intellectuals and popular culture alike. Before becoming a Hollywood star, Dunham, of mixed West African and Native American roots, traveled to Haiti to study voodoo rituals for an anthropology degree at the University of Chicago. Fusing American dance, European ballet, and voodoo movements, she became a symbol of the black diaspora. In a recent film interview, Dunham recalls how her young assistant (or “girl Friday,” in the parlance of the time) Maya Deren was fascinated by Haitian dance and would use it to steal the show in rehearsals, public performances, and glitzy parties. The daughter of Russian Jewish émigrés and Trotskyite activists, Deren was struck by the power of this syncretic dance, which blended different cultural backgrounds and formed political consciousnesses while always providing entertainment and energizing dinner parties and giving voice to invisible deities. In her experimental filmmaking, Deren infused this magnetic power of dance into cinema.

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Anthropology > Centre for Visual Anthropology (CVA)



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Date Deposited:

22 Jun 2015 13:32

Last Modified:

14 Nov 2019 11:46

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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