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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Profiles

An Archivist of Necessity

June Givanni on a life spent documenting Black culture.

By Simran Hans

October 10, 2023

June Givanni, 2023, photo by Amaal Said, courtesy JGPACA.

For decades, June Givanni has remained committed to a central project: documenting Black culture as it morphs and changes.

The gallery will house her archive for the next two months, in an exhibition titled PerAnkh: The June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive, which she curated with Danish-Ivorian critic and curator Awa Konaté. PerAnkh is an ancient Egyptian term that translates roughly as “house of life”—a shrine of knowledge and higher learning. Then again, “shrine” suggests a monument to the deceased, and so is perhaps the wrong way to describe what Givanni herself calls “a living archive.” For over 30 years, Givanni has been a curator and custodian of African and African diaspora cinema. The exhibition is shaped by her personal scholarship, around a group of Black women filmmakers that she has come to know well (there is a room called Sisterhood), the groundbreaking artist films of the UK’s Black Audio Film Collective, and film festivals she programmed in West Africa and across the Caribbean. It is dense with film ephemera, talismans obsessively collected, laid out in glass vitrines, and tacked to the walls. Today she has agreed to give me a guided tour.

Dressed in a maroon skirt suit, black ankle boots, and a headscarf the colors of the Guyanese flag, 72-year-old Givanni cuts a stylish and spry figure. She is not exactly how I imagine an archivist: shy, studious, confined to a shadowy vault. But Givanni is by her own admission an archivist of necessity. A film programmer and events producer since the early 1980s, she has long been an advocate of the Marxist, decolonial culture of Third Cinema and the filmmakers it has influenced. She has championed Black artists across African, Latin American, and Caribbean cinema, including Safi Faye, Gaston Kaboré, Sarah Maldoror, and Ousmane Sembène, by bringing their stories to global audiences. Givanni has worked for institutions including the Greater London Council, where she was part of the ethnic minorities unit, the Independent Television Commission, and the BFI, and as a programmer for international film festivals in the UK, India, France, Brazil, Martinique, and Nigeria among others. In 1993 she founded and co-edited the pioneering Black Film Bulletin magazine with writer and curator Gaylene Gould. Givanni kept the posters, pamphlets, and program notes from her events, alongside film scripts, photographs, recordings of festival Q&As, and other related objects. Today, the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive comprises more than 10,000 individual items.

Installation view of PerAnkh – The June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, Raven Row, 2023, image courtesy Raven Row, photo by Marcus J Leith.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, Givanni arrived in north London in 1958, at the age of seven. There, she joined her mother, a Red Cross nurse who had been invited to work in London during the Windrush. “It was just the two of us,” says Givanni. Her father stayed in Guyana. Givanni tells me a story about being chastised by an English school teacher who was baffled by her advanced cursive handwriting. She’d been put with the five-year-olds, the assumption being that coming from the Caribbean, she’d be academically behind, not ahead. “It was the ’50s,” she says. “These people were not very educated about who we were.” It was a shock for Givanni to be treated as a colonial project instead of as a person. Since, her passion, and project, has been “making sure people understood who Black people were.”

The sheer volume of material on display is overwhelming. Items that catch my eye in the ground floor’s archive studio room include a freestanding cabinet stacked with DVDs and VHS tapes, many of which are out of print, and, to my amusement, a wall decorated with canvas tote bags collected from various film festivals (I’ve still got all of mine, too). Each item, I quickly learn, holds a story. 

Upstairs in the audio room, she scrolls a touchscreen panel on the wall and selects an interview with Black Audio Film Collective’s John Akomfrah. A crackly cassette recording of a conversation they had in a noisy Fitzrovia restaurant about the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty for Sight & Sound magazine booms from a speaker. In the library room, she pulls a book about Thomas Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso, from the shelf. The author had contacted her, looking for photographs of Sankara wearing something other than military fatigues and his signature red beret. Givanni had one she’d taken at a party during FESPACO, the Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou. “He turned up in his Faso Dan Fani outfit—that is the fabric he was championing, because it’s woven in Burkina,” she says. “His philosophy was about using your own, valuing your own.” So, apparently, is Givanni’s.

Clockwise from bottom left: Lamar Williams, June Givanni, Manthia Diawara, and Toni Cade Bambara in Philadelphia, 1991. Photo by Louis Massiah.

Instinct, mostly, has guided Givanni in choosing what to preserve and what to share. She wanted the exhibition, which involves a program of additional free screenings, to include films and items that might be regarded as “iconic”—things that friends and colleagues in the sector would be familiar with, that might still be new to a wider group of people. An enormous, well-loved poster of Martiniquan filmmaker Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley (1983) decorates a stairwell. “She gave it to me,” she says. “She’s a patron of the archive.” Sugar Cane Alley earned Palcy the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and later a César award in France. Givanni saw the coming-of-age film in an arthouse cinema in West London. “I could not believe it. We were like, ‘This film is here?’ Nobody knew about it, because it went through one of the arthouse distributors,” she says. She and former GLC colleague Parminder Vir programmed the film as part of Third Eye Film Festival, and organized a series of community screenings at a library in Wood Green, North London.

Givanni came of age in the pre-digital era. She would roll up posters and put them in her suitcase, physically transporting her programming materials across continents. “The thing is, I would need them in the next place that I was taking the program to,” she says matter-of-factly. Much of it still needs to be digitized. “We try to make sure people at least understand this stuff exists, and the scope of it.”

She says she used to keep all of this stuff in her South London flat. When her son left home at 18, his bedroom became the archive, but soon the material outgrew the space. “So I had to hire storage space,” she says with a sigh. In 2012, she and Imruh Bakari, the co-director of the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive, worked on an archive project for Film London about the history of Black people in London. It involved getting out and sorting through the materials she had quietly amassed—and finding a place to do it in. The Brixton and Stockwell Community Centre offered her a storeroom for free. It didn’t have any windows. She put up lights and shelves and installed a plank chest where she could display her posters. As a thank-you, she’d run free screenings and workshops, roping in her filmmaker friends to help. She was there for five years before moving the archive to MayDay Rooms in Central London in 2016, a dedicated safe haven for social movements, marginal cultures, and their histories. It’s telling that Givanni’s archive has found a home here, welcomed by an organization that recognizes the political value of her collection of cultural artifacts.

From Hyènes [Hyenas] (1992), dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty, image courtesy Thelma Film AG.

The PerAnkh exhibition does not attempt to present a full narrative or comprehensive overview of pan-African cinema. How could it? Instead, it is organized into loose themes: FESPACO, Caribbean Film, Black Audio Film Collective, Sisterhood. These, Givanni hopes, will take audiences on a journey that allows them to appreciate the work in context, and to open their minds about what an archive could be or do—that it might function as a library rather than a museum. Instead of accumulating a collection of fossils, Givanni’s life’s work has been to document Black culture made by Black people, as it evolves and grows, morphs and changes.

How do you differentiate a living archive from a dead one? Perhaps it’s to do with the signs of use—precious signs of life—that subtly mark each poster, leaflet, and vintage DVD. Much of the archive I observe is in good condition, but not everything on display is perfectly pristine. Givanni lets out a “Ha!” when I ask why it’s important to distinguish her archive as living. “Because I still curate. And I still collect,” she says. “I’m still using it myself.”