A report by Rachel Elizabeth Jones for Seven Days.
Independent curator Margaret Coleman first met longtime Burlington activist and filmmaker Robin Lloyd in December 2015, when they were seated side by side at a women’s dinner hosted by a local artist. Today, Lloyd is perhaps best known for her work with the city’s Peace & Justice Center. But as they talked, Coleman realized Lloyd had a rich past in the arts, too, encompassing local history, global activism, the anthropology of religion, experimental film and 1970s feminism.
That chance meeting evolved into an exhibition, “‘Black Dawn’ to ‘Medusa’: A Retrospective of 1970s Art & Film by Robin Lloyd & Doreen Kraft,” curated by Burlington-based Coleman and on view at the Champlain College Art Gallery through September 9.
At last Thursday’s opening, guests gathered around a borrowed 16mm projector to watch a time-worn print of Kraft and Lloyd’s 1978 collaborative work “Black Dawn.” The 20-minute short tells, in broad strokes, the story of Haiti’s successful struggle for liberation from French rule. Like all stop-motion animations, it is essentially a handmade film. After two trips to Haiti (out of four total together), the artists employed scissors, tweezers and patience to bring to life narrative paintings commissioned from 13 Haitian artists. In a 1977 Burlington Free Press article, Lloyd observed that theirs was “the only animation stand between Boston and Montréal.”
Artifacts from the film’s production hang on the walls surrounding the projection. Among these are several paintings, an original rotoscope drawing from the film’s vodou possession scene and a colorful, hand-painted panel depicting the MGM lion by late Burlington artist Kathleen De Simone. (“Vodou” is more commonly spelled “voodoo” in the United States.) “Black Dawn,” said Coleman in a recent interview, represents the “crux of [Kraft and Lloyd’s] career and collaboration together.”
The snapshot that she has assembled offers a glimpse into much more than Haitian history. It pays tribute to the personal and political creative work of two women who have become pillars of the Burlington community: Kraft as the longtime director of Burlington City Arts and Lloyd as an untiring activist and founding member of the Peace & Justice Center.
“Both women are such strong leaders in the community,” Coleman said. “The show [and] their work in the early 1970s point to the path that they ended up following in their involvement [with] and commitment to the community.”
In her show, artworks used in the making of “Black Dawn” are accompanied by a selection of looping experimental shorts and a series of handmade fliers for community screenings. Offerings ran the gamut, from the multiday Take the Bull by the Horns women’s film festival to Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet.Admission generally ran from a suggested donation of 75 cents to $2.
Kraft and Lloyd first met in the early ’70s, when they worked as high school art teachers in the Rochester, Vt., area. They lived as roommates for a winter at Wing Farm, a property owned by Lloyd’s family. In a recent interview, the pair recalled organizing a collaborative effort to make seasonally themed interpretive banners for a local church, which “may have been a little too pagan for them,” Kraft mused.
In 1973, the women sought a more urban environment and moved to Burlington. Kraft was 21 years old, Lloyd 35.
Exhibition text for “‘Black Dawn’ to ‘Medusa'” declares, “Lloyd and Kraft worked to bring the essence of the feminist art movement to Burlington.” In 1974, as part of a group of women artists, they collectively opened the Delighted Eye gallery on Church Street. The space would host the “Vermont Women Group Show,” an exhibition that included sculpture by Kraft and Lloyd along with works by 12 other local artists. It was here that the pair debuted their short film “Medusa,” an interpretation of polarized female archetypes.
Around this time, Kraft and Lloyd’s interest in experimental film led them to a fascination with filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-61). In addition to creating celebrated and groundbreaking surrealist works, Deren had traveled to Haiti in the 1940s and ’50s to study the dance components of vodou ceremonies. Ultimately, the filmmaker would become entranced by the religion and reportedly possessed by the goddess Erzulie. She recounts her journey in the 1953 volume Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.
“[Divine Horsemen] was like our bible,” Kraft said. She and Lloyd took their first trip to Haiti in 1974. Their resulting 1975 short “Moving Pictures” documented the colorful scenes painted on the “tap-tap” buses in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
The following year, Kraft and Lloyd returned to the island nation, their trip funded in part by small grants. In one proposal they wrote, “Our contact with Haitians has deepened our interest not only in this historical period [of the revolution], but also in mythological imagination and the collective unconscious, areas explored in our previous films.”
To provide the artists they would commission with proper materials, Kraft and Lloyd shipped seven hefty boxes of supplies to Haiti — specifically, to the island’s American embassy, without permission. Despite the ambassador’s scolding, they were later invited back to discuss their film.
Fortuitous circumstances found the pair in a vodou temple in the capital’s Carrefour neighborhood — in a room dedicated to Erzulie, no less. By night, they attended ceremonies, where they were participant observers but never became possessed. By day, the women wrote in their journals, read Divine Horsemenand wondered, Is this how Maya saw it?, they recalled. “Our hosts thought we were from an obscure order of nuns,” reads the filmmakers’ statement.
Vodou is an integral aspect of the story of Haitian liberation recounted in “Black Dawn.” The 1791 uprising that eventually led to independence from the French in 1804 was sparked by a vodou ceremony that took place at Bois Caïman. At the exhibit opening, Kraft quoted the saying that, in Haiti, 90 percent of the population is Catholic and 100 percent is vodoun.
Indeed, the filmmakers purport to have used the proliferation of animist beliefs to their advantage. They wrote in their statement, “The involvement of the artists with Vodoun — wherein objects are ‘animated’ by spiritual forces — made them all the more receptive to the creative concepts of animation that permeate ‘Black Dawn.'”
Lloyd in particular repeatedly emphasized, both at the opening and during her interview, the significance of the Haitian revolution (and, by extension, of “Black Dawn”) as a stark example of enslaved black people successfully overthrowing their white rulers. The film debuted in 1978 as part of the first-ever American survey of Haitian art, held at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1988, it was included in the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition “Haiti: The First Black Republic and Its Monuments to Freedom,” which toured for more than three years. As an educational film, “Black Dawn” remains the best-selling title of Green Valley Media, a production and distribution company that Kraft and Lloyd founded in 1974.
After “Black Dawn,” Lloyd went on to make the short documentaries “Haitian Pilgrimage” and “Haiti’s Piggy Bank.” The latter recounts the destruction of the rural Haitian economy by American economic meddling.
In conjunction with “‘Black Dawn’ to ‘Medusa,'” the Champlain College gallery will host a panel discussion titled “Hopes for Haiti” on August 23, led by Saint Michael’s College associate dean Moise St. Louis. On September 5, Kraft and Lloyd will offer a dialogue on “Reflections on the Feminist Art of the 1970s.”
“[Doreen and Robin have] dedicated their lives to art, community and social justice,” Coleman said, “and I think this is a nice way to recognize the amazing body of work that they made.
“You can look at both women and their lives as integral parts of their artwork,” she continued. “There’s no separation.”