Questions by Adi Berardini
Ayo Tsalithaba’s primary mediums include digital art, film photography and digital filmmaking. Largely influenced by music and travel, transporting the viewer everywhere from a dreamy alpaca farm to the village of Cheshee, their films address identity and the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Ayo is also the founder of The Bacon Berry Card Co., a small company specializing in cute greeting cards, stickers, prints and more.
Ayo has been featured in Huffington Post Canada, The Kit, TFO, the University of Toronto magazine and Munch Magazine. Additionally, they have screened their films and appeared on panels at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, University of Toronto, George Brown, the Revue Cinema, Xpace Cultural Centre, among others. Ayo is currently specializing in Women and Gender Studies and minoring in Linguistics at the University of Toronto. They hope to continue learning, taking risks, sparking conversations and above all else, advocating for positive social change.
- One of your films interviews Bobby Bowen and discusses queer terminology specific to the African/Caribbean/Black community. I was wondering if you could further discuss this work?
The film that I made with Bobby was actually a final project for a class I took in my second year. We were supposed to work on a project that “produces knowledge” and to be honest, I didn’t really know what that meant. Instead, I wanted to turn to knowledge that is often overlooked and decided to blend what I was learning about linguistics and women and gender studies with my interest in film and make a short doc about queer terminology. I was also just getting into archiving and documenting Black queer histories, so this project was perfect. It’s stuff like this that keeps me going through school because I know that I can take what I’ve learned, strip it of pretentious (and unnecessary) gate-keeping academic jargon and put it on a screen. I know Bobby through my siblings and from admiring his work as a stylist, so I sent him an Instagram DM and we worked together. I just love this project because it was the first interview that I shot after my feature documentary and I felt like I got to apply what I’d learned to something short, sweet, educational and queer.
- I noticed that you often collaborate with musicians. What is your process for creating films for music?
I spend a lot of time listening to music and imagining what I would do with a song if I were given a budget and permission to make a visual for it. I would like to think that I’m constantly practicing music video filmmaking in my head whenever I listen to music, which makes it easier when an opportunity arises to be in the right frame of mind to come up with a concept. I usually start by listening to whatever song I am working with and jotting down ideas. Then I show them to the artist and see what they think and go from there. I like having a plan, but I also like letting go of it to some degree during the shoot. I make sure we have all the shots we need and then I like to play around and try out new things. After the shoot, I like taking a look at the videos and then I have to take some space before I start editing (unless I’m super excited to edit – in which case I could probably finish the video in a few hours).
- You mention on your site how travel first influenced your discovery of documentary filmmaking. Can you explain this further? In what other ways does travel inspire you?
I was very lucky to be able to travel a lot as a kid because whenever my dad was going on a trip and I didn’t have school, my mom and I would go with him. However, the first time I remember making a good travel film was when my parents and I went to visit my aunt in Mauritius. I spent the whole trip filming our journey across the island. I think that my [documentary] work was influenced by my travels because I remember just wanting to document everything I saw – whether it was through film or photos – and that would allow me to keep taking it all in long after I had returned home. It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to make a film on every trip that I go on, and if I don’t have the time for a film, I make sure to take as many photos as I can. It’s funny because now I don’t travel nearly as much anymore because of school, because I’m trying to save up and also because I hate flying. I would still love to shoot a documentary that allows me to travel, but for now, I just have a list of places I want to visit.
- Do you think that photography and film can be used as a tool for social change? If so, how do you think it contributes to change?
Oh yes, absolutely a hundred times yes! I think my life’s work resides in art for social change – I’m so committed to it. I love making things look, sound, and feel beautiful, and to mix that with an important message is the best harmony there could be. I want to broaden photography and film to art, in general, to answer this question, because art has always been so important in championing change and artists have played an instrumental role in such. I can’t help but think of Nina Simone and how strongly some of her songs pushed for dreaming about Black liberation. I think art contributes to change by allowing people to sink into a struggle and see, hear, or feel something that was made with love and care. I want my art to be something that allows people to experience a shared struggle remotely. In a lot of my films, I try to make space for fear, anger, sadness, outrage, happiness, jubilation, love, hate and more emotions that I have felt while I was alone. In a lot of cases, I wish I had one of my films to watch and cry to or laugh to or just be angry about the current state of affairs to. One of the little ways I try and contribute to social change is making art for it. Eventually, when people trust me enough to give me a bunch of money to make things, it’ll be about bringing people who haven’t had access to funded art together and paying them. And then it’ll be about putting money and opportunities back into communities that need them.
- Who are some artists that influence you?
I know I’m going to forget people and this list is in no particular order, but: my whole family, Nina Simone, Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Tika, Miriam Makeba, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Noor Khan, Sean Brown, Twysted Miyake Mugler, Syrus Marcus Ware, Solange Knowles, Vivek Shraya, Ruth E. Carter, Morgan Sears-Williams, Sean Leon, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Elisha Lim, Barry Jenkins, Sydney Allen-Ash, Tegan and Sara, Ava Duvernay, Nayani Thiyagarajah and so many more that I know I’m forgetting!
- You are multi-talented—you work as a digital artist/photographer/filmmaker and you have a greeting card business, Bacon Berry Card Co. What are you interested in exploring next?
I am very interested in cooking! I absolutely love cooking and eating. I have a food Instagram account (@notcookingshow) that I’m trying to turn into a cooking show because I know that I’d be a great cooking show host. Other than that, I see myself designing clothing because I struggle to find clothes that fit me and don’t give me dysphoria and I know there are other people who feel the same. Ultimately with all of the things that I’m interested in, I just want to help provide and spread opportunities, experiences and stories that aren’t out there. And also make money and give it to people who need it and help create programming and services that cater to underserved communities.