INTERVIEW: Queer multimedia artist Tiona McClodden
By Gender Bent
May 20, 2014
She’s meticulous and passionate about her work, unabashedly queer and well, not at all afraid to speak her mind. Meet multi-media artist Tiona McClodden. Whether it’s through poor depictions on television and film or other subtle ways, society is constantly telling you who they believe you to be and who you should be. Every now and again, there are those who unapologetically challenge stereotypes and standards by simply being themselves. When I conversed with Tiona McClodden there was a sense of no pretense. What she shared with me was exactly what was on her mind at that particular time and she didn’t hold back. Like for instance, her seeming disdain of my home away from home, Atlanta. She stands in her queerness and couldn’t give two fucks what you think of her. She’s talented, her work nuanced and intricate like her latest exhibit “Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement I – The Visions” and this only seems to be the beginning for the ever evolving talent.
By Andrea Dwyer, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Andrea: Please introduce yourself to the folks in Afropunkland?
Tiona: I’m a filmmaker/visual artist currently living and producing work in Philly-North Philly to be specific. I work primarily in documentary filmmaking but I’m now moving into a more experimental type of filmmaking practices. I’m exploring hybrid fiction/non-fiction work and narrative work. Most of my work is based in exploring race, gender, and sexuality in some form. I’d also like to say that I own like one of the first Afropunk t-shirts from a few years back [laughs].
Andrea: How did you get into filmmaking?
T.M: I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina I was enamored by films and didn’t really have any idea about how they were made. That fascination stuck and I would eventually go to Clark Atlanta University for two years before dropping out in 2002. Shortly after dropping out I worked with the only mentor I’ve ever had who was at the time working in the Media Department at Spelman College. I was mentored for almost two years in this work but eventually moved into general filmmaking and music videos which financed my first film black./womyn. My mentorship and work in Atlanta was the beginning of everything.
Andrea: Harriet’s Gun is the name of your multi-media distributing firm. Is there a story behind the name?
T.M: I wanted a strong name that would be a metaphor for doing something difficult in hopes of getting to a better place. I’ve always loved the narrative of Harriet, and liked the idea and action of getting “free”. I also think Harriet Tubman is one of the most iconic figures in America in regards to capability and doing something that folks think you might not be able to do. I especially like how folks spoke of her willingness while on her many Underground Railroad expeditions to put a shotgun on anyone that would threaten her mission to free a group. I think that’s how I like to approach my work in regards to being a member of the greater black artist community. I want to create and produce work that advances the mission of blackness in the sense of freedom. Ultimately, I want my work to always be very forward thinking and progressive.
Andrea: How was that transition from Atlanta to Philly?
T.M: I left Atlanta in 2006 for Philly. The move was pretty seamless financially, believe it or not. Atlanta has this rural faux-urban thing going on while Philly is urban as urban gets. Philly is also a less hostile environment for working artists when it comes to production and exhibition of work. I was definitely a country girl having only lived in the South, but I think working in my field has allowed me to fit in exceptionally well in here. North Philly is my home and provides a majority of the aesthetic inspiration within my work. Philly is the birthplace of America so in regards to the great migration and black historical moments in the history of the country there is no place like this.
Andrea: Tell me about the accessibility that artists have in Philadelphia when it comes to showcasing their work?
T.M: I think Philly provides a lot for independent working artists. First of all, there’s the transportation situation within the city and the accessibility to the east coast transit system which is such an interesting thing as someone who drove for so many years. I also treat the east coast like a big ass state-I’m in DC and NY all the time building with fellow artists and exhibiting work as well. Mobility outside of driving was and still is a big thing to me. When I was in Atlanta, there were only a few spots to showcase your work and no funding on a local level. Philly provided me with a chance to exhibit work and explore funding through grants, etc. I also like that there are a lot of working artists who I can talk with and not feel completely isolated. We also have some really dope festivals here-music and film- the BlackStar Film Fest is a big deal for the city. It’s a testament to how folks engage and position Black film and art here.
Andrea: You’re not only known for your films but you’re known for writing as well. What’s your approach when it comes to putting pen to paper?
T.M: I basically am the type of writer that will walk around with a script narrative in my head until its really well developed, then I sit down and write it out in one or a series of sittings then re-write it a few times. I call it purge or vomit writing. Bumming Cigarettes was written like that. It took me two years before I wrote it out by hand and I did six drafts before the script was completed. For me it all starts with a single image, gesture, or a line of dialogue and then I work on trying to establish a color or feeling for the work. Physical writing can be painful at times because that’s where the editing starts for me. Shit is all nice and tight in your head until you bring it into the real world then small things start to change. It’s interesting.
Andrea: How was the creative process of putting together your last exhibit “Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement 1-The Visions”?
T.M: Be Alarmed is a project that I’ve been working on for about five years now. It’s my most ambitious project to date. It was also overwhelming production wise at times because I was approaching narrative fiction and non-fiction writing, photo appropriation, and sculptural work all at once to produce this new media form of what a film could be. I started with a script outline and historical outline of my family’s history. I had old family photos that served as aesthetic reference for the entire exhibit. I used music as a reference in a way I never had before. I had my sculptural portraits that I had to build which was a very intensive process that had me in my body in a way that I hadn’t experienced before in regards to the physicality aspect. I basically created a series of sculptures that represented different members of my family as well as referenced African-American historical moments that were then placed within the film so that influenced the writing. Working with my lead actress Danielle Deadwyler was intense as well because she never had a formal script given to her and I gave her space to perform within various spaces based on themes ranging from blackness in general to specific characteristics I told her about my family. She was straight up method acting for the three days we shot which was intense and necessary to maintain the feel I needed. Everything was tight and loose at the same time so to speak. It’s the closest place that I’ve felt to Jazz as a music form without being musically inclined in anyway. That was the goal to have this in the pocket thing, but kinda off thing at the same time.
Andrea: “Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement 1-The Visions” is one of four installations. Will there be continuity or are each part a separate entity?
T.M: “Be Alarmed” is a film in whole within itself even though I’m partitioning it at as a series. The approach is series based because in each movement I’m dealing with a specific time and familial reference. Movement I was situated in present day whereas Movement II – The Seamstress will be set on the 1930s. Movement I was shot on HD video and Movement II will be shot on 16mm black and white film to reflect the medium that was used at the time. One of the parts will be shot on VHS because it’s set in the 80s. There is definitely continuity but more so through the idea of a family’s generational line holding a form of continuity. I’m also positioning sculptural artifacts that are in conversation with each other that will aid in the narrative.
Andrea: Are you going to jump right into the remaining parts of “Be Alarmed…”?
T.M: Yep. I’m prepping and parts of the others right now as well. I’m not trying to exactly finish the movements in a particular order, and I’m always working on them simultaneously and individually depending on what I come across because I have a hold on the full narrative. So if something comes up strongly that develops the visual prep for the narrative I focus on it for sure. The goal is to produce a part of the series yearly until it is completed.
Andrea: How can folks support black filmmakers?
T.M: I think support for black filmmakers in particular goes beyond financial support. I think showing up and viewing work, critiquing work, and purchasing work is a great way to start, but I think sharing work and putting the word out there on the behalf of the work is great as well. I would also encourage film festival support when a filmmaker has work screening in your area. It’s a way to connect to work and also show support in a way that could very well aid in the distribution of that filmmakers work. For a lot of us it’s about seeing that there is an actual audience for the work. Everyone likes to say they make work to satisfy themselves initially and, while that’s definitely true, we also want to reach an audience at the end of the day.
Andrea: You’ve explored themes the likes of sexuality in your films. You’re an out artist. What’s been your experience with the coming out process?
T.M: Well, I’ve been out since I first told my siblings at 13 years old so when I think about being a queer black artist there is a certain stance that I like to take when folks ask me about my identity that is a positive one. I think that my holding a range of identities that many folks think that in single form can’t exactly “get along” is a powerful place to be. Like I’m all of these things in one person and I make that shit work. It’s an advantage and not something I’ve ever tried to minimize.
or even exploit. It’s just my perspective or standpoint, so while folks may think it’s being didactic it’s my day to day in a real ass way. So my process has been beneficial and has allowed me to always explore things in a pretty layered way. I explore sexuality through my work and sometimes I don’t. But the queerness that I carry is still informing that vision so all my work is queer by my producing it I think. I’ve had some wack shit happen to me professionally because of my sexuality, but it definitely didn’t stop me or overshadow my mission to create the work I want folks to see and experience.
Andrea: Tell us something that most don’t know about you?
Tiona: I think that’s something that goes along with identity or the out artist thing. I’m an initiate of an African based religion. I have Ogun as my Orisha – the Yoruba deity. Spirituality and religion are themes I’m exploring within my work and I’m open about it in hopes to complicate the monolithic idea of what someone who practices this faith looks like. I created a ton of work last year during my year as an iyawo, which is why I’m rolling out so many new films and projects. It’s like what I was saying earlier about being a lot of things in one person that folks like to say can’t get along. This is another identity that I hold dearly and won’t let be put to the side. It’s a cornerstone to my life and not temporary in any way so I’m not interested in hiding that part of myself either.
Andrea: What’s next for you?
T.M: This is a big exhibition year for me, so it’s nice to be able to share my work. My short Bumming Cigarettes [http://www.harrietsgunmedia.com/bumming-cigarettes]
is screening this fall in Japan and I’m working on wrapping up the script for my first narrative fiction feature Flowers, which is vignette based in form which will feature only black queer femme identified women as the leads. I’m working with THEESatisfaction on a film/music video for their upcoming album. I’ll be exhibiting the first part of Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic in a few places this year like group show curated by E. Jane called WAIT at Project 4 Gallery in Washington, D.C. on May 17, 2014.
Next year will be the seventh anniversary of my first film black./womyn., and I’m prepping some cool online programing that will debut in 2015 to accompany the film I have a lot of stuff coming up. I’m always working, but I always stay grateful.
Folks can keep up with Tiona’s work over at harrietsgunmedia.com.