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The Keeper: Portrait of Cheryl Ann Bolden

Mariette Auvray talks to us about her film The Keeper

The French director has made a new film The Keeper, a portrait of the artist and curator Cheryl Ann Bolden, who uses objects to free both words and memories.

Mariette Auvray’s new documentary follows the path she started with her web series Palestinians, which put women in the spotlight, giving them a voice and showing how they resist by creating. The Keeper, a documentary Auvray produced herself, focuses exclusively on one woman whose wit and sensitivity shine through. Cheryl Ann Bolden is an African-American artist who moved to Paris almost 25 years ago. There, she continues the memory work that she began in the 1970s, reviving the past through the objects she collects. At home, or in her studio-cum-museum, surrounded by the objects which tell stories of the great history of the African diaspora, Cheryl Ann Bolden shares the emotional charge carried by sculptures, posters, old documents, paintings, photos, and grotesquely stereotyped dolls of yesteryear. All of these buried traces are brought to light in order to better question the present. Mariette Auvray lets Bolden tell her story, follows her in her conversation with adults, teenagers and children, captures her ability to question and to provoke questioning in others, and shows us her talent for liberating words. She also allows the silences to speak for themselves and they speak just as much as the words of this tireless “keeper”. Before the release of the film on our YouTube channel, Mariette Auvray looks back at the film’s story and meaning in this interview.

How did you meet Cheryl Ann Bolden?

About five years ago, I was involved in a shoot at the home of an art collector who had quite a few African sculptures. During the shoot I had this feeling that the objects were taken out of context. So I wondered if there was someone of African descent who also collected sculptures, who could offer me another point of view on these objects which can be found all over France in exhibitions but which, if we’re talking about masks for example, were worn in rituals. I asked a friend who pointed me to Cheryl, whom she knew through an acquaintance. That’s how I met her.

Initially, I had wanted to film several art collectors with different points of view, a sort of living portraits thing but with a cinematic side. Then when I met Cheryl I decided to focus on her. I would have liked it to be a bit longer but I was short of funding and had to stop in the middle of the project. So the rushes just sat in a drawer. Last year I decided to edit the film, because even though it’s shorter than I would have liked, I think it’s really important, especially in relation to Cheryl whom I’d filmed several times. It’s a record of her. Even if for me the film is not as accomplished as I would have liked, it is a doorway into her world, her collection – a doorway to many things.

Mariette Auvray

What did you enjoy about the process?

I really loved seeing her personal museum. She’s an art collector but a really engaged one. 

In her workshop she encourages an enormous amount of discussion and it’s so cool talking to her that people stay in the workshop for ages! Everyone talks – she has this power to make things flow, to open up the floor. She’s really good at listening to others too. Her personal museum, which also travels around with her, makes it possible to learn about colonial history through the conversations that she provokes in relation to these objects that teach us about the past. By keeping traces of this painful past they are conduits of communication from the past to the present. We see this in the film, when at one point one of the teachers starts to cry; we can see that the objects are still charged in fact. This is also what interested me – how these objects charged with the past can have a cathartic, almost therapeutic effect. I wanted to talk about objects seen from that angle and I thought that making a portrait of Cheryl was a bit of a gateway to this way of seeing objects. Initially I wanted to talk about African sculptures, but I also filmed her collection which is made up of many other things: photos, posters, not only sculptures.

In the short text you wrote to introduce the film you said that you were interested in questioning the effects of colonialism, but that it was complicated to talk about it with the French people. Why is that? How was it different speaking to Cheryl?

Over the last five years a lot has happened in France in terms of the conversation about the effects of colonialism. But five years ago when I met Cheryl, I felt that there were things left unsaid, taboos; there is no real conversation on the subject. In France we’re told that race doesn’t exist. As a result that cancels out everything, any conversation. I didn’t know many racialized people around me, and it was complicated to talk about it without fear of offending people. But this documentary – or at least meeting Cheryl – actually allowed a space for discussion with someone with whom I could address these issues. Her collection inexorably calls for that conversation to take place. It calls for a conversation about racism and the effects of colonialism. When you film someone it’s an encounter and it teaches us things. With Cheryl we talked a lot about how we experience things… as a woman, for example, at my age, at her age. We had very, very deep discussions about life, about the world. Let’s say that it “loosened me up” about talking about racism for example. That’s also why I made the film – because she’s someone who opens up dialogue on that level and in a relaxed way.

Why was this dialogue possible with Cheryl? Cheryl is a very good listener and she shares her knowledge and experiences. Perhaps, also, because she’s African American. We speak English together and we don’t have the same culture. As a result, a space is created within that difference. I think it’s possible because it’s not quite the same story.

There are several moments in the film where we see Cheryl telling people, especially young people, about the objects in her museum. Did you focus on this particular element? Or is speaking with younger generations an essential part of her approach?

I don’t think so. At one point in the film she says that she does what she does for herself first of all. That’s why there are several sequences where I talked to her about her family and memory. She collects objects and archives colonialism, but she also collects objects to do with her family. In the film there is a shot in her home where we see a sort of altar upon which there are family photos, sculptures, necklaces… and so it’s full of objects she’s collected which belonged to her own ancestors. She has kept clothes from her aunts and instruments that belonged to her great-grandparents. For her this is also an archive of African American history. She collects everything. Everything is an archive for her, an archive of the African diaspora. I don’t want to speak for her, but I have the impression that there was first of all a personal need to accumulate all this. The workshops, I think, came later. Before being a pedagogical need it was something very spontaneous. As she says, it’s her “therapy”. It’s part of her life. It’s her way of keeping memories through objects. That’s what I found so beautiful. And then afterwards she actually uses it. She uses the whole archive side of the past to pass on the story. She shows African American history and the European colonial past to teenagers and to their teachers. In the film there’s a moment in her workshop with several people around a table and they’re all teachers. There were African American teachers as well as a Native American woman. And it was a powerful moment because everyone was talking about discrimination. It was a really profound moment of sharing.

You’ve already hinted at it but why did you call this film The Keeper?

It’s the memory-keeping side of things, in fact. The beauty of her actions; to want to keep the memory of living beings, and those of the dead. That’s why I called it “The Keeper”, because that was what touched me about Cheryl. I identify with that because when I make films I always have this feeling that there is this same need to archive, to keep track. So, we kind of have the same need but expressed in different ways – for me it’s images and for her it’s more objects.

Don’t miss Cheryl Ann Bolden in The Keeper, today at 6pm (CET) on PAM’s YouTube channel. Don’t forget to click on the bell on the YouTube Premiere.