Suneil Sanzgiri’s Anti-Colonialism Films Get a Bigger Screen

The Indian-American artist, who became the first filmmaker to win the UOVO Prize, talks about adapting his first feature-length film for the Brooklyn Museum, bringing films into the physical dimension, and his long-awaited return to practicing sculpture.

A still from Sanzgiri's film, 'Golden Jubilee'. Credit (all images): Suneil Sanzgiri

The poignant films of Suneil Sanzgiri reckon with the tumultuous legacies of colonialism in the Indian state of Goa. Despite tackling important topics, the Indian-American filmmaker has never shown his work in a solo exhibition. That will change later this year when he’ll bring his filmic works to life at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the fourth annual UOVO Prize. Recognizing the talents of emerging Brooklyn artists with a $25,000 cash grant, the accolade will also see Sanzgiri revamp the 50-by-50-foot facade of the art storage provider’s newly opened Bushwick building with a giant 3D-generated image that charts new creative territory. 

“This is the first work that stands on its own as a still image. It doesn’t come from a film, it’s its own piece,” he says of the artwork, which will draw from the poetry of Kashmiri-American writer Agha Shahid Ali. A bright red banner will display one of the poet’s quotes—“Your history gets in the way of my memory”—affixed between two poles floating in an endless ocean. 

At the Brooklyn Museum, Sanzgiri will turn his lens to the Portuguese mythology surrounding the colonization of India and Africa—an admittedly tough topic to distill for museum-goers. “Film is really hard to get people to sit and pay attention to, to want to spend time with,” he tells Surface. “It’s a line I am always drawn to in thinking about reckonings not just with the past, but the ways that history and memory are sometimes irreconcilable. The way lived experience and memory gets disappeared by the way history is narrated.”

We spoke with Sanzgiri about both shows and how he plans to return to his roots in sculpture in order to bring his new feature-length film to life.

A still from the artist's film, 'Letter'.

You’re working on your first feature-length film, part of which will be shown in your Brooklyn Museum exhibition. What can you tell me about that?

It’s an iterative process, so the feature-length film will be a different iteration than what viewers can experience at the Brooklyn Museum. It looks at the bonds of solidarity that developed in India and Africa during the anti-colonial period against the Portuguese; the network of relations that developed between historical figures in Goa, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau.It’s my first time working in fiction. 

Can you elaborate on that?

The fictional aspect is centered around this woman whose dreams are haunted by this figure called the Adamaster, a figure from the Portuguese epic Os Lusíadas, written in the 1500s. It romanticized and charted Vasco da Gama’s conquest of Africa and India. The Adamaster was a monstrous storm cloud that formed on the Cape of Good Hope and sought to destroy Vasco da Gama’s ship to prevent him from ever reaching India by way of Africa. Ultimately this mythological creature failed. 

[For the Brooklyn Museum] I’m working with a team I’ve worked with before on some of my other films. We’re creating a CG animation of this figure. It becomes a way of talking about the ultimate failures of some of these anti-colonial movements, and traces the ghosts of the past as they inherit the present.

A still from the artist's film, 'Letter'.

Critics often seem to apply the word “decolonization” to your work, but that’s not a word you use. Why is that?

My work does deal with anti-colonial struggles, but decolonization is its own process. It means something in different contexts. So I’m not afraid of using the term but I find that it’s become dulled by overuse.

These words take off and the language becomes abstract, when really, decolonization means something very specific. In particular, the repatriation of Indigenous lands. It’s difficult to talk about these things within the context of art and film. I’m dealing with anti-colonial struggles—I often use that term or anti-colonial liberation movements.

How do those terms relate to your work? 

I’m referring to particular movements, whether they’re independence movements or more militant movements. It’s about the way in which struggles against 400 years of colonialism ushered in a new era of thinking about history, questions of autonomy, and questions of camaraderie and kinship, and this new kind of form of consciousness that developed out of that era, and the possibilities that it held.

I’m referring to particular moments in history but also their relevance today, and how we either reject or inherit the kind of mantle of those moments: what we learn from them and what we leave behind. 

A still from the artist's film 'At Home'.

Your other works have shown at film festivals. What are your plans for engaging viewers in a museum setting?

What I’m excited about with this iteration is that it’s actually very slow and soft. I shot it on 16 millimeter film. It’s very atmospheric, so you can wander into the work at any point and get something different out of it each time. The gallery space is going to be transformed to feel more like a market space, with these multi-layered tarps that are ubiquitous around India and the Global South. There will also be sculptures that have a trellis of images draped over and printed in different materials like fabric.They’re archival ephemera that I’m going to include so viewers will be able to walk around the space, even while they’re watching the film, and see some of the archival documents and all these other things that went into the research for this.

I’m really excited about the sculptural dimension because I got my degree in sculpture. I never went to film school, but I studied sculpture so it’s amazing to indulge in the physical dimension. I’m really interested in transforming the gallery space to bring films into a physical plane, or at least the research that goes into filmmaking.

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