Raafi Riveroimages and ideas

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Raafi Rivero is a filmmaker and artist based in Brooklyn, NY.
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These missives have been posted at varying intervals since 2006 when “moblogging” was a thing. Please explore work and ideas here, elsewhere, or on the social platform of your choice:

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I’m not sure when landscape photography became a dominant form of exploration for me within the craft. I just know that it happened. As with almost everything I’ve posted over the past few years, these were shot on an iPhone SE and edited in Photoshop.

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Back in the maudlin days of this blog it was hard to imagine some of the wonderful things that have happened in my professional life over the past few years. The only things to report were the reality that those things were decidedly not happening. I started to make the posts here less personal, more bland.

But what’s the point of having a weblog if one never actually says anything?

And so I started writing more personal stuff again, even if there was no anticipation that it would ever lead anywhere. The direction of my career has, in fact, never ceased to be a point of deep misgiving, even if, against all odds, the wins have started to stack up here and there. So, in the spirit of that confused young man, and his slightly-less-confused older self, I share the following:

Last week I appeared on a panel at the newly-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in support of mentor and all-around mensch Haile Gerima, whose film Sankofa was recently restored. The screening was the opening of Haile’s retrospective at the Museum. It was thrilling to see the restoration of a seminal black film on the best screen in the world.

And it was an honor to appear on the panel afterwards, with Haile and Daniel E. Williams, another professor of mine, along with Oscar-nominees Bradford Young – a friend and former classmate – and Ava DuVernay. I even got the biggest laugh of the night, and, it must be said, my outfit was on point.

In 2017 I took this picture of Haile at his office in DC. He was seated in his customary position: in front of the Avid, working on his next film. The photo is a reminder that there is only the work. The accolades, if they come, come on their own time.

ed. note: if you missed the November 12 screening of 72 Hours at the Academy Museum you can stream it on Amazon here.

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According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word lucubrate means “to write or study, especially by night.” It comes from the latin root lucubrare which means to work by lamplight. There’s a pejorative tone to how the word is used in present-day English as the New Oxford notes that lucubrations, usually plural, describe “a piece of writing, typically a pedantic or overelaborate one.” Maybe it’s because lucubrating is what I do, but I’ve always thought of the word as being closer to its original meaning and appreciate the fact that embedded inside, like a filament, is lux, lucis — the latin word for light.

The image of someone contemplating a thing past the time when others might have stopped, often in dim light, is a wonderful thing to encapsulate within a word.

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Waking up to news of the police killing of Daunte Wright, 20, in a town near Minneapolis sent my emotions through the spin cycle. These events are both regular and unpredictable. As a rapid response, I created a jersey design within Instagram’s stories feature.

Later in the day I learned that the artist Karine Varga, who often uses the New York Times as fodder, created a Daunte Wright jersey out of my recent Times cover, mashing up the one from the story with a physical copy of the Times.

One of the most difficult parts of working on Unarmed is that the jersey designs themselves are reactive. As someone who prefers to be proactive, who prefers action over inaction, this lack of control is the worst part. Still, several people wrote to me and one called yesterday, each echoing a phrase I’ve heard many, many times, “keep going.”

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That headline isn’t clever, but damned if it doesn’t do the job. Journalist Ben Osborne made me comfortable enough to speak in my own language, to cry, and to wax on the talismanic quality of jerseys in my life, and then set it up with a feathery sentence like this:

Sports also carry the nostalgic symbolism of youthful innocence. “One of the best moments was always when you got your jersey, your number. I’d just want to wear it all the time,” … “Jerseys were sacred objects for me.”

Some interviews I’ve done leave me feeling that the person missed the point of even talking to me. Not this time. Check out the lede:

And it looks great in print.

Read the full story here.

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Here’s a short documentary about the Fall Tour I did with Unarmed. It streamed as part of the YouTube Originals special Black Renaissance, alongside segments by Barack and Michelle Obama, Anderson.Paak, Killer Mike, Stacey Abrams, and other luminaries – a great honor. The segment played at the 55-minute mark, directly after a meditation on protest in sports voiced by Jemele Hill. Black Renaissance has now topped 3-million views.

The above image is from Kenosha, WI. The one below is from the Elijah McClain memorial site in Aurora, CO. Less than a minute after I’d installed the print, the guy in the picture made a U-turn and drove up next to me. He called out the window, asking about the jerseys, then turned off his car and walked up to take a closer look. We talked for a few minutes and took some flicks.

Making the film gave me the opportunity to tell the story of touring the country with Unarmed in a medium that suits the expanse of time spent on the road. It was fun to build a narrative out of so many disparate sources: news clips about the project, scanned pictures from childhood, iPhone footage from the Tour, and a scene filmed on a cinema-quality camera starring the dancer/choreographer Edgar L. Page, which we filmed inside the Unarmed show at Leon Gallery. In one scene Edgar wore the hoodie we released in conjunction with the show. Edgar is also the first person to be photographed wearing an Unarmed jersey. It gave me a special jolt of adrenaline seeing the garment in motion after so many years of working with the designs in two dimensions.

Working seamlessly with multiple footage textures is something I first learned to appreciate while editing the documentary Rock Rubber 45s for Bobbito Garcia. Weaving. At the end I even snuck in a great shot from my trip through the Southwest.

An inside joke I have with a couple friends who both direct and edit films is that we’re “dangerous on the timeline.” Telling stories in film is becoming like writing in a journal. The letters are sometimes a little crooked, the handwriting can be shaky, but the words are flowing.

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I shot these during a series of afternoon walks I took while living in Ensenada, Mexico for a couple months. The pandemic was still raging south of the border, too, but at least the sunsets were decent. I’ve placed these and other shots from the American southwest in a new photo set documenting some of my recent travels.

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In the month of February I had my first solo show as an artist at Leon Gallery in Denver. The exhibition featured my work for Unarmed and a few images from my recent travels in the American Southwest.

The pivot from ‘filmmaker’ to ‘artist’ has not been as daunting as I thought it might be, in part because it’s happening later in life when I have more confidence in my skillset, in part because much of the work I’m doing still involves cameras and editing, and in part because many of the skills I use in film are transferable. Designing a set for a character in a story, for instance, then breaking that story into shots that the viewer might appreciate, is not unlike designing the experience for a visitor moving through a physical space.

The other thing that makes it easier to do this work is that most of my film clients stopped hiring me during the pandemic. Creative is as creative does, and staying active, making things, is as embedded in my process as any external provocation like cashflow. Work will come out of my body whether someone is paying for it or not. And it feels like this work has been wanting to come out of me for a very long time.

Unarmed feels more like a calling than a brand, more like a mission than an art project, more like a passion project than activism. It is all three.

To be unarmed is to be vulnerable, to ask the outside world for its most precious resource: love.

The Hennessy bottle I added to the Sean Bell memorial within the show is a reference to the empty bottles one sees at street memorials in Brooklyn. Many such bottles can be seen at the Sean Price memorial mural that I photographed a few years ago.

One interesting wrinkle is that the physical garment of the Elijah McClain jersey – the item that took the most time and effort to produce – was not the signature moment in the exhibition. Unarmed jerseys, produced as garments, will have their own moment and I look forward to bringing them to the forefront. Similarly, I created a photo wall of images taken during my tour last Fall of cities that have experienced the trauma of racist police violence. While it may have been possible to build an entire show out of those images, they were just one beat in the story of this exhibition.

What I most enjoyed about designing the space was seeing a vision come to life over the course of an iterative process. PDFs, spreadsheets, emails, and conversations were as useful as Adobe Photoshop. It was satisfying to see ideas I’d mocked up on a laptop rendered into three dimensions. Robert Pietri and Rick Gonzalez, my collaborators in turning Unarmed into a brand, made excellent contributions as well. Together with one of the gallerists, the four of us installed the show by hand. Building walls and benches, applying vinyl to surfaces, hanging things from points on the ceiling. And there were small touches that I designed ad hoc, in the space, the grace notes.

One such moment came from looking at a shaving of wood. We’d cut a piece too wide and the curled shaving was too beautiful to throw away. It sat in the corner of the gallery for a day or two, looking pretty, until I figured out a way to use it, laying it over a cinder block that anchored the wall of jerseys. When I signed the other corner of the wall with my graffiti tag – the show felt complete.

A few notes: Here’s a partial video walkthrough of the space. All images from inside Leon Gallery by Amanda Tipton Photography. The Fall Tour that formed the basis of much of the image-making in this show was sponsored in part by a grant from the V-Day Foundation, and generous donation by USXL Printing. Vinyl jerseys and images inside the gallery were printed by Eye Candy Graphics, and sponsored by an emergency grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

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