With a rich but modest history of women animators, those who have made it within animation have made an impact. From the pioneering animator and director Lotte Reiniger, who adapted the shadow puppetry of China and Indonesia beautifully for the cinema to Lillian Friedman Astor who was the first female studio animator in America, to Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical film Persepolis. The narratives reflect a female perspective and different way of seeing the world.
In 2016 The Hollywood Reporter published their annual animation roundtable with the title ‘Seth Rogen and 6 More on avoiding Ethnic Stereotypes and How to Break the Mold of Princesses’ (Giardina, 2016). Elle online reacted to this article with their own titled ‘We Asked 4 Female Animators About Diversity and Women in the Industry’ (Tang, 2016). They reacted because many readers pointed out that every participant was ‘a white man. And, to further highlight the homogeneity of the panel’s composition’ was the diversity headline. Animator Brenda Chapman reacted with,‘ A roundtable about ethnic and female stereotypes—they choose seven white guys as the experts, and give it that title? C'mon!' Puja Patel (@senari) posted on Twitter (2016) ‘this headline and photo! This photo and headline!’
In the twenty-first century is it not possible to have more diverse narratives and perspectives within mainstream animation? Diversity is being addressed within mainstream animation, with films such as Moana (2016) to the animation sequence The Tale of Three Brothers (2010) within Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows Part I. However, the impact of feminism and equality laws has changed society, but the dominant narrative is still homogeneous even though it may at times acknowledge we live a diverse world.
Jessica Ashman: I used to love animation as a kid but actually didn’t realize that it was an actual career that actual people could do for a while. For the longest time I veered between wanting to be a ballerina (love of movement) and journalist (love of stories). I started to get into drawing when I was in secondary school, around the same time I started to get into comics and film and I really couldn’t decide on what I liked creatively because I enjoyed it all so much. It was only when I undertook my Art A Level and discovered artists, film and in particular, animation in art that I thought it was an ideal medium for me. It combines so many things I love: drawing, narratives, film, and movement. I applied to a BA in Animation at the University of Lincoln and then that was it! I still wish I pushed the ballet thing more, though!
TF: Who are your most important creative influences and why?
JA: My creative influences come from a lot of different places, so I’ll just mention the ones that first come into my mind! I love the work of artist Daniela Yohannes and her afro-futuristic, philosophical paintings. Same goes for the books of Octavia Butler and how she uses incredibly imaginative sci-fi narratives to present metaphors of race and gender rights. Leonora Carrington’s paintings are so magical. They look like fairy tales, yet have something much more metaphysical underneath. Kara Walker is one of the greats but I love how she tackles narratives in her work about black women – everything has a strong story in her work and the fact she doesn’t stick to one medium resonates with me, and my love of mixed media practices. Music plays a big part, too, in influencing my ideas. I listen to NTS [radio] almost daily, to shows like Touching Bass and Questing; they play a lot of quite spiritual hip-hop, jazz and some downright jams. My friends who are creatively doing their thing inspire me, too! Chardine Taylor-Stone’s activism, Shola Amoo’s film work and Stephanie Philips' music and activism really inspire me, too. Any black girl I see playing in a band excites me. And so many talented animators I graduated with from The Royal College of Art. I really could go on forever.
TF: Your award-winning BAFTA film Fixing Luka is a very personal piece. Why did you choose a traditional fairy tale animation style for this project?
JA: The idea for the film was one I had for years and was always based around malfunctioning puppets and a metaphor for people, probably due to my love of stop-motion puppet films. As I developed the narrative, I started to borrow from the familiar tropes of fairy tales as a form of structure; the idea that you have to go on a quest to discover an answer for something you probably had inside of you all along. I think this, coupled with its stop-motion styles makes for a very fairy tale-feeling film.
TF: Your most recent work and exhibition, I Don’t Protest, I Just Dance In My Shadow, is an abstract and confessional piece about being a black woman and woman of colour within animation and the visual arts. How can your work challenge race and gender without you being defined by your gender and race?
JA: I think this was the question I was thinking about when making ‘I Don’t Protest…; somehow consolidating my very being as a black woman and how it intertwines with my work. Does it even matter? Sometimes I veer between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In the end, I feel by just being a black woman existing and creating in the world we live in today feels like a challenge in itself. A protest of sorts.
TF: Your work is very diverse and magical – do you feel that your style creates a platform to express unconventional and hidden narratives?
JA: Within my work, I’m always trying to find secret worlds or universes in which to explore stories and narratives. If I’m making a project, I’m going to be momentarily stuck in that universe I created until the project is over. And with animation, you can create any type of magical universe and rules for said magical universe that you can think of; all you need to do is draw or build it. So that combination results in some usually mad results, most of the time! But recently, I feel it is important to ground my work with an emotional core or reality that resonates with other people – I think there is room to be political and imaginative at the same time, and the idea of doing this more in my future work quite excites me.
To find out more about Jessica visit: http://www.jessla.co.uk/.
Underwire Film Festival 2017: ‘I Don’t Protest, I Just Dance In My Shadow’ is a short visual essay film by Jessica Ashman, about navigating the visual art and animation world as a black face in a white space. More information: http://www.underwirefestival.com/events/women-at-war/.