(Editor's note: Sacharja Cunningham '19 is an instructional designer with Hamilton's Research & Instructional Design Team. This story highlights his creative work as a student on College Hill.)
Sacharja, you’re conjuring again.
At first, you hear just a voice. The screen is black, then fills with the pink-purple-blue motion of an otherworldly night sky. From the bottom of the screen, a solitary figure in a hoodie rises, back to the camera, to speak the next line of his spoken-word poem. It’s Sacharja Cunningham ’19.
this poem of a place
place in a poem
Cunningham created the 15-minute video Astral to process through art what he’d long been processing internally. In it he considers issues of race, identity, nation, and his African ancestry within the swirling context of the Black Lives Matter movement, campus activism around diversity and inclusion, his semester in Ghana, and Donald Trump’s presidency.
Astral was a project for an advanced videography course with Professor of Art Ella Gant, taken when Cunningham was just back from study abroad. “There were constant news stories that made me think, reflect internally, how do I process the fact that every day or every other day there is some sort of threat of anti-blackness? And how do I honor people who, despite all of that, have contributed to making black people’s lives more livable in the United States and abroad?” he asked himself.
Cunningham, who has graduated, is now working at Hamilton as an instructional designer.
Drawing on his Africana studies major, a passion for storytelling and spoken-word poetry, and technical skills, Cunningham created Astral in the digital arts suite of the Kennedy Center for Theatre and the Studio Arts. He pulled a lot of all-nighters to finish it. It was the most demanding, technically advanced, and time-consuming project he’d ever undertaken — and the most meaningful.
In it he conjures the voices, words, and images of figures who embody his concerns: Trayvon Martin, Audre Lorde, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, James Baldwin, and others. Cunningham claims them as his ancestors, speaking to them and letting them speak. He draws connections through their lives, words, work, deaths, politics, and his own life. “A lot of what I’ve found over my four years here is that to be at the core of [the] liberal arts is to make those connections across disciplines, across people,” he explains.
Cunningham, who was a digital media intern at Hamilton, saw video as a way to go beyond the poetry he’d done previously. Shooting, performing, editing, revising, and grappling with the green screen and audio allowed him to bring new dimension to his work and to invite more people into it by sharing it on YouTube.
Digital technology and modes of thinking are changing the world and Hamilton prepares its graduates to work effectively in this new environment.
Still, all the video technology at students’ fingertips is just a tool, albeit a tool of power and magic, points out Gant, who has worked in digital arts for decades. Ideas have primacy over tools. She wants students to discover, to tap into their imagination and curiosity. Her primary objective as a teacher, she says, is to help them understand how they can use any tool to go further then they think they are capable of going. Cunningham did that. Gant says Astral exemplifies the goals she has for her students’ work.
“The ultimate point of making art is communicating something, making contact with other human beings, helping each other to understand each other, looking at someone from someone else’s point of view. All the kinds of basic things we talk about now. For me, that’s one of the great things about digital arts,” Gant says.
Cunningham wants to make digital technology part of a career in education, although he doesn’t yet know the precise shape his career will take. “I’m a digital media intern, which combines education with technology and instructional design, so I’m exploring my options because there are a lot of different programs, a lot of different types of schools, that I could go to,” he says.