Tendai John Mutambu is a film programmer and writer from New Zealand based in Bristol, UK. He tells us what is important for moving image curators and how he built his career.
My early experiences in moving image curation led me to the UK
I studied art history at university and had little training in film studies.
I lived in Aotearoa, New Zealand where I worked at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre. Part of the gallery’s remit is preserving and presenting the work of sculptor and experimental filmmaker Len Lye.
While working there, a colleague and I proposed a film programme for the Len Lye Centre cinema. That was my first attempt at film programming.
Some of the best work I’d seen from outside of New Zealand was moving image based. It included work by Marwa Arsanios, Harun Farocki and others.
This led me to move to the UK, where I worked at the British Film Institute (BFI) London Film Festival.
The best moving image and film addresses pertinent questions
It can reflect the history of the medium, or give audiences new ways of seeing the world, and imagining other worlds too. The best moving image often does all these things at once.
For example, it can illuminate the history of anticolonial resistance – something I’m acutely aware of because of my upbringing and by virtue of being Black.
Zimbabwe, where I was born, and New Zealand, where I was raised, were both part of the British Empire. Both have a history of radicalism, liberation movements, and anticolonial activism. I’m critical of attempts to diminish the sophistication of pre-colonial worlds, worldviews of Black and Indigenous peoples, and the ways in which they resisted colonial violence.
The work of Black Audio Film Collective, Sarah Maldoror and Merata Mita teach us how to interpret the world, and, more importantly, how to change it.
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Curating moving image is like being an editor
Moving image curation involves hours and hours of viewing. It can be quite a solitary task.
A lot of the process is researching where and how the work has been presented previously. That helps you to contextualise it and formulate original responses.
Your role is to help the artist or writer make the best version of what they’re trying to create. You’ve got to read what they’re reading, watch what they’re watching and listen to what they’re listening to to put yourself in their frame of mind. Through conversations with them and their critics, you can start to understand how they see themselves in relation to their work.
As the programmes take shape, it can be more of a collaborative process. With We Are Here, I had regular phone calls with Oriana Calman of the British Council and Ben Cook of LUX for feedback.
Making connections in moving image curation is crucial
If you want to get into moving image curation, find like-minded people. You could create a reading group or film club, share work and discuss it.
You need to keep watching, reading, listening, going to festivals, having studio visits with artists and conversations with filmmakers.
Keep an eye on trainee positions if you’re just starting out. Get in touch with established programmers and festival professionals to see if there are any opportunities.
Tendai John Mutambu is Assistant Curator of Commissions and Public Programmes at Spike Island in Bristol, UK. He recently curated We Are Here, a series of artists’ moving image film programmes from the collections of the British Council and LUX.