Allegiances And Convictions: A Conversation With June Edmonds And Luis De Jesus

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Interview By Luis De Jesus
Introduction By Summer Bowie
Photographs courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles


When tasked with defining America, the forefathers of this country attempted to create a union that, though forged in rebellion to an oppressive regime, was ultimately funded by slave labor. By declaring this land a union where all men are created equal, only to deny representation and basic civil liberties to all who are not white men, the framers of our constitution bequeathed to us a contradiction that we are still working to correct today. Almost 250 years later, with the divisive nature of our political system and a multitude of bifurcation points within each party, it seems that defining the American identity has become nearly impossible. While interviewing June Edmonds about her series of flag paintings that comprise Allegiances and Convictions, the current exhibition at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, Owner/Director Luis De Jesus observed that the colors of the American flag were lifted directly from its British counterpart—it seems reasonable to suggest that our flag is due for an update. Vertically oriented, Edmonds’ flags vary from one to the next in color and pattern. They employ the primary hues of red, yellow, and blue, the three colors necessary to create a full spectrum of brown skin tones. During a recent public conversation between Edmonds and curator/writer Essence Harden hosted by De Jesus, an insightful teenage art student asked about the literal and conceptual roles that labor plays in the surrounding artworks. The student noted the meticulously painted smaller stripes that comprise each of the larger flag stripes, and the uniformity of each performed painted stroke. In person, these paintings certainly provoke questions about all aspects of American life, including the shrinking labor force that is so often leveraged by politicians on both sides of the aisle for personal gain. In an age when the average American seems illiterate or oblivious to abstraction and the power of art, it seems that the emblems to which we are asked to pledge our allegiances are in need of redefinition, and that definition necessitates an honest reflection of who we are: multi-hued, multi-faceted, of varying size, and in constant flux. The following conversation between Luis De Jesus and June Edmonds was conducted this past April at her studio at the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, CA, in advance of her first solo exhibition at the gallery.

LUIS DE JESUS: You’ve said that the idea of the flags came to you in a dream in 2017, six months after you returned home from an artist residency in Paducah, Kentucky. What was it about that place, that landscape, that inspired your dream?

JUNE EDMONDS: Being out there, there is a different relationship to the flag. There is also that additional flag. Paducah is pretty much a progressive island within Kentucky, but outside of it is not. While driving to Memphis one day, I saw on top of a hill a Confederate flag as big as this wall. So, if you’ve got a Confederate flag that big in front of your house you really want the world to know something.

DE JESUS: So that planted this idea, this question in your mind about the flag.

EDMONDS: ...and about the power of flags, and what flags communicate, and how flags are appropriated.

DE JESUS: And the fact that you were on that land, you were in a place that played such a big role in the Civil War.

EDMONDS: Applying to Paducah I thought, “Okay, I’m going to No Man’s Land.” I’m going to a place no one’s been to before. But after Trump was elected and America started taking on this new tint, going to Paducah became a whole other idea and I was apprehensive. I was at a party and someone joked, “Well, at least you’re gonna be close to the Ohio River, because if it gets too deep you can swim across.” That sort of planted the seed in my mind. It’s really kind of meaningless right now, but that really meant something at one time. It became really interesting to me—the thought of being on that land 150 years ago. So, I started doing some research and I learned about Margaret Garner. I named the triptych “Ohio Story” after her. Her life is what inspired Toni Morrison to write Beloved. It’s about this woman who was a slave that was as close to the Ohio River as I was at the time.

Story of the Ohio For Margaret, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Story of the Ohio For Margaret, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

DE JESUS: How long were you there for?

EDMONDS: One month.

DE JESUS: That visit had a big impact on you. When you came back it stayed with you for a long time, it permeated your daily reality and your dreams, obviously, because you had the dream about these flags some months later, which kind of kicked off this whole project. Tell me about your use of color in these flags because it’s very specific. It’s very different from an earlier body of work, the mandalas inspired by your meditation practice. Is this something that just came naturally? Did you say, “I’m going to paint these flags; I’m going to create a flag.” Did the colors happen naturally or was it something that you had to think about and it was a conscious decision—your decision—not to use bright colors?

EDMONDS: Oh, it was conscious all the way. There are two things that inspired the color. The flags that came to me in my dream were black, but I was already thinking about using skin tones—brown skin tones. “Unina,” a painting I started in Paducah, is evidence of that. When I came back to LA I looked at another painting I started the year before called “Primary Theories” (2016), which used primary colors in brown tones. The idea is that all skin tones come from these particular primary colors that I was using in those works. If life started in Africa, then all skin tones come from that African skin tone. And then I thought back on how African black skin tones are referred to colloquially. You’ve got yellow—you know, we use that term. We use the term red, meaning this sort of Indian black skin tone, and we talk about really dark skin being blue black—primary colors. Those are the three colors that we use to talk about skin tones, to describe somebody that lives down the street.

DE JESUS: This is not something most people know about—unless you’re Black. I’ve never heard of this before.

EDMONDS: I’m really surprised! You being from DC and all!

[Laughter from both]

DE JESUS: Yeah, but I think Black people talk with each other differently.

EDMONDS: Of course, absolutely. When I think of the flag, I’m not going to do red, white, and blue. I’m doing red, yellow, and blue. I’m using the primary colors but still these are primary colors to brown. Very, very loosely, more and more and more loosely, I do consider that. I do consider that orange to be a red, or I consider that purple to be a red violet, or I consider that green to be a blue green. So, it just gets looser and looser.

DE JESUS: We’ve been asked, does she ever create horizontal flags? What’s behind the decision to keep these flags vertical?

EDMONDS: Okay, so two things. First, I dreamt them that way. The second thing is I wasn’t inspired by Jasper Johns, but I am inspired by Jasper Johns–the idea came to me independent of his flags–but I welcome the juxtaposition of those flags. With that said, his are horizontal and I want to keep mine distinct.

DE JESUS: And, typically, that’s how most people identify Johns flags—horizontally.

EDMONDS: These flags are standing for something, so I’m gonna to keep them standing.

Installation view of JUNE EDMONDS:  Allegiances & Convictions , 2019. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus os Angeles. Photo by Michael Underwood.

Installation view of JUNE EDMONDS: Allegiances & Convictions, 2019. Courtesy of Luis De Jesus os Angeles. Photo by Michael Underwood.

DE JESUS: Also, a vertical has references to the standing figure. Seen together like this they sort of become these signposts. Each one has something to say that is unique to it.

EDMONDS: Cool. Do you feel that it abstracts them more?

DE JESUS: Well, that’s something I really love about them. I’ve had to point out to some people that they are flags. They don’t necessarily read them as flags, though some people do. Once I point it out they see it. I love that about it; it’s not obvious. You have to contemplate it a little more. But then the titles give it away.

EDMONDS: So that’s what I like: more abstracted, for it to come to you, and not be immediately legible.

DE JESUS: I have another question for you: have you ever felt that you were creating a new American flag?

EDMONDS: I’ve been thinking about this statement. It’s such a big idea that I shied away from it when you first asked me. But over the days I’ve been thinking, “Well, what are you painting for anyway? What are you doing this for anyway? Don’t you want to shift some ideas?” A new American flag says that we are shifting the idea of what something stands for. I accept that now.

DE JESUS: I love it! You’re embracing it now. I mean, it’s very powerful! To me, this whole idea of interpreting the flag in these colors, in these forms, is very provocative. As people in the art world we can appreciate it on a certain level. But a person who may not have that same connection or perspective may respond very differently. Their response may be similar to yours when you saw that Confederate flag outside of Paducah. They may look at your flag and say, “Oh man, that scares me!” It’s not just that you are making your own statement about the American flag, but you are proposing something quite radical here. It’s like you said, it’s an opportunity to really look at what this stands for, to think about its history, how it has impacted people—not just Black Americans—but all ethnicities who have come to this country, who embrace the flag, who embrace the country, and yet are always going up against things that keep them out, keep them from becoming fully realized Americans.

EDMONDS: I listen to a lot of audible books. One of the last ones I listened to is, The Rebellious Life of Ms. Rosa Parks. You hear about this person who came before Rosa Parks, who didn’t get up, but nobody knows her. Claudette Colvin was 17 years old and months before Parks did what she did somebody told her to get up from her seat. At the time she was studying government in school and she replied, “Don’t you know what the Constitution says?” I thought that was so powerful! So, one of these flags will be named for her.

DE JESUS: I consider what you are doing quite radical. All of your flags are becoming the new American flag. This constant change happening, the shift in colors from band to band and from flag to flag—this is not a static object, but something that represents evolution and change and progress.

EDMONDS: I like that. It’s sort of becoming.

DE JESUS: It’s always becoming, always working towards the goal, the ideal. What you said about the colors made me think of the stripes and the stars, how the design and meaning came from the tradition of European monarchies. The colors are from the British flag. We brought those ideals to this country and it became part of our own design. Yet, the ideals never became fully realized.

EDMONDS: Those colors were intended to stand for something. They probably said: “Okay, this is what it’s going to be. Red means valor. Blue means courage,” or something like that. But the flag is used to validate: this is what’s acceptable and this is what’s not acceptable in America, under this flag. If a person, behavior, or thing is not acceptable, it has no courage, it has no valor... and we all know that’s bullshit. This is important to me.

A Fashion Renegade Makes His Mark: An Interview With Designer Charles Elliot Harbison

Growing up near the Appalachian Mountains in his home state of North Carolina, New York-based fashion designer Charles Elliot Harbison was disconnected from the glitz, grunge, and all things in-between of New York fashion. Nevertheless, he still managed to find his way to aesthetics. Though it might seem surprising to the average New York cool kid, Harbison learned about style at the church. “There was propriety in it,” he says. “There was personal exhibition. There was worship. It was never thoughtless. I remember white shirts, blue blazer, bowtie, some suede bucks. That’s when I became acquainted with style.”


New York Fashion Week has solidified its position as the most commercial of all the Fashion Week’s. But as New York commerciality has reached its apex, a crop of young radical designers have emerged displaying awareness of contemporary art and pop culture and shining light back on American fashion: Eckhaus-Latta, Moses Gauntlett Cheng, Vejas, and Harbison.

But Harbison still stands out as something of a renegade even amongst this crop of wildly exciting fashion design talent. Though Harbison comes from a fine art background, having studied fine arts and painting at North Carolina State, he does not shy away from things traditionally “chic,” inspired by the luxurious approach to sportswear his mother employed when he was a child. He has leaned towards the subversive since he started his brand three years ago, employing a gender-neutral approach to his garments far before the industry jumped on the trend. But even with that, it’s not hard to imagine Park Avenue women loving to wear his modernist, color-blocked, and astoundingly beautiful clothes, allowing him a customer far wider in demographics that some of his contemporaries could ever conceive of reaching. “I don’t think [subversiveness] has to be relegated to just casual wear or crude construction,” says Harbison. “I want to do it through the filter of elegance, expense, and aspiration.”

Harbison also has some serious fashion education. Having learned about textiles and fabrics in Central Asia, studied fashion as a post-grad at Parsons, and worked for Michael Kors, Billy Reid, and Luca Luca, he has a leg up on his contemporaries with flat-out knowledge over the construction of garments. How would you describe those garments? This writer would say, “subtly striking.” They aren’t unwearable pieces of clothing architecture or tattered to shreds in the name of art. Harbison creates a form-flattering silhouette and then applies blocks of vibrant color to make the statement. They are the types of clothes that you find yourself staring at without realizing it. “Color, texture, embellishment, contrast, valence, proportion,” says Harbison. “I just wanted to be true to that when I started Harbison.”

He also has the ability to tell stories without grandiose displays of conceptual creation. Everything that Harbison presents in his shows, he sells. Much like Dries Van Noten, or even Yves Saint Laurent (minus the couture), he adheres to the tenets of ready-to-wear. And yet, he still conveys strong and discernible ideas. Patti Smith is the brand’s muse, and Harbison has also told stories centered around Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, and Nica Rothschild. The strong and cultured women that breathe in his garments has attracted the attention of Beyoncé, who wore custom Harbison to Kanye’s Yeezy Season 1 presentation (and Solangé wore the same in Paris some weeks later) and brought massive attention to the brand. “What the muse does is allow me to work them into my stories,” says Harbison.

When I meet Harbison in his small, clothes-filled office near Manhattan’s City Hall, he is in great spirits despite a busy morning. Though his brand sat out the last NYFW, he is still moving forward. His next collection will be the first “gender-neutral” collection where the clothes are cut in ways to fit a man and a woman’s body. He laughs a lot, and has an ease in explaining his ideas that is absent in a lot of creatives. We spoke at length about his history and the direction of the brand.

LEHRER: Are you still religious now?

HARBISON: I have a spiritual practice. I go to church in Harlem. It feeds me culturally as well as spiritually. It’s nice to have this whisper of my early life an hour away. [I live] in Bushwick. Every Sunday, I get to be around black people from the South.

LEHRER: Does it ever rub you the wrong way that something you’ve been doing for a while, gender-neutral collections, is now a trend and being done by like, Burberry?

HARBISON: It completely bothers me. When I launched [the brand] in 2013 it was inconceivable for the buyer to understand a man in a womenswear lookbook. They couldn’t understand seeing one coat on her and the same coat on him. From a market point of view, this is a women’s collection. But the cuts are neutral. This is how my friends and I live. When I was at Michael Kors, I would wear women’s samples as a dude. I never felt like my masculinity was compromised. Of course, I’m queer, but I saw straight guys and girls doing the same thing. By and large, America is slow to this idea. You have Selfridges with their gender-neutral merchandising.

LEHRER: They had a gender-neutral section in their store. Like, Hood by Air and J.W. Anderson.

HARBISON: Fully. You have Gucci putting dudes in pussy bow blouses. You have Jayden Smith as the face of Louis Vuitton womenswear. I feel like a lot of that gets filtered through novelty, comedy, and trend. But for me, it’s just a way of dressing that makes sense. I want to do it from a slick point of view. It makes me a better designer and marketer.

LEHRER: A lot of brands will throw dudes in a women’s lookbook or a show for a statement. You’re thinking about it in terms of the products.

HARBISON: The pant cut, we fit on a guy and a girl. The tunic cut, we do it in a way that works well on him, but it gives her tailoring options if she wants to do something more waisted. The transformability of the clothes allows them to become whatever you want them to become. It’s not just a visual statement. The shit feels good. There are a lot of clothes that are “exclusively for women,” but even that’s not true. Like, dude, it’s your life. If he wants to wear a dress, I don’t care. I just want to make cool ass shit that makes people happy.

LEHRER: Do you feel like buyers are starting to have a bigger say in what the collection is?

HARBISON: Store buyers, often, now see themselves as the end-all-be-all. It removes a lot of the excitement from the shopping and dressing process. What if someone had done that to McQueen? What if someone had done that to Galliano?

LEHRER: I shudder to think of the buyer telling Alexander McQueen what to do.

HARBISON: In the beginning, McQueen and Galliano were making crude but interesting stuff. There were problems with construction, but there was an idea there, and it was supported by the industry. It wasn’t until they got money that you saw their actual genius. Their processes were supported.

LEHRER: Color is a big part of your collections. Your brand came out three years ago, and at the time, the big predominant thing was street goth, ninja goth. Were you put off by the excessive use of black?

HARBISON: No, not put off. But I did want to offer something different. I design through the filter of art and modernism. The beginning of my arts education was in fine arts and painting. I love fine arts first.

LEHRER: When did you decide to transition from art to fashion?

HARBISON: In undergrad, I ended up weaving seventeen yards of this beautiful fabric. For me, it was like speaking to my Native American heritage. It didn’t feel right to wrap it on a canvas. So I thought to make some garments. That moment in undergrad, my junior year, was when I decided to figure this shit out.

LEHRER: You went to central Asia to study textiles. What did you learn over there?

HARBISON: I studied in Turkmenistan in undergrad – indigenous fabric construction. When I graduated, an opportunity came up to go back to the region for a year. I hadn’t found a job, so I thought, why not? I wanted to understand more about myself. There was so much mystery around that area. It’s an area that no one has really claimed. It’s former Soviet territory, but the population is South Asian, and they look East Asian in language and food. It’s influenced by the Middle East. It was also my first time out of the country, and it was the best decision I made. Fell in love with the fabrics. Spent time with students in their villages, and saw how they lived so casually amongst beautiful things.



LEHRER: And then you started working so you went to Parsons for some post-grad work, and then went to work?

HARBISON: I cut my teeth at Michael Kors Collection. 

LEHRER: Your designs are much more radical than Michael Kors. What did you learn from him?

HARBISON: I learned so much: quality, detail, fabric, merchandising, selling, and how to dress people. Michael knows his way around client connection in a really amazing way. There’s an approach to his fashion that is really respectful of the genre. Though I approach novelty and art, I wanted [my clothes] to be rooted in shapes that are classic. I don’t make a lot of conceptual pieces. I love sportswear, so being with Michael was the best place for me. 

LEHRER: You said you started your own brand by accident. What was that accident?

HARBISON: I burnt out. I was at Billy Reid and walked away. I started traveling. I had an Eat Pray Love experience. It was awesome. I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and that changed my life. She and Robert [Mapplethorpe] were the muses for my first capsule. I came back to New York from St. Croix. I had an interview at some collection, and when I walked in I thought, “I’ll be damned if I can do that.” Fashion week was coming up, and I didn’t want to skip a season. So I just made my own samples and shot some thing myself. Those images fell in the hands of Mark Holgate at Vogue and Virginie Smith. They said, “Do you want this to be a thing? We’ll feature you.” It’s been a hella crazy ride since.

LEHRER: I want to ask you about Patti Smith. You said she was the brand’s muse. What is it about her that you find so inspiring? Aside from, well, everything.

HARBISON: Beside everything she’s ever done? Patti walks this modern line of femininity, which I think is amazing. In her relationship with Robert, she was the stronger entity. He was the more fragile of the two. The relationship was beautiful and modern in that way. I find Patti’s lack of self-consciousness aspirational. She and Robert were vehemently sure of what they wanted in New York. That reminded me to take the risk. I was also able to touch this late ‘60s world that I love. In my mind, I feel I would have really done well in that time period touching on the modernist artists that I love. 

LEHRER: You’ve done collections based on Sade, Aaliyah, Erykah Badu. Do you always design with a specific woman in mind?

HARBISON: For example, last spring I imagined Erykah Badu singing in a Zen garden carrying a Bryce Marden painting. This story allowed me to imagine seemingly contradicting things and bring them together. That’s a challenge that I like. I want to offer things you’ve never seen before.

LEHRER: New York has gotten known of being the most commercial of the fashion weeks, but there is a whole crop of designers and brands coming on the scene who are making innovative things. Why do you think this is happening now? Has the commercialization hit a tipping point that is being rebelled against?

HARBISON: Completely. You see the evidence in the industry itself. The commerciality is no longer commercial.

LEHRER: The biggest brands are all struggling too.

HARBISON: Exactly. For younger designers, there’s no desire to make something you already see in the world. Design based on replication doesn’t feel responsible. Also, with a global market, we’re comparing ourselves to everything around the world, even things that aren’t “high fashion.” Everything becomes a reference point. Everything influences what we find fresh, new, artful, and relevant. 

LEHRER: You said you don’t want to be Ralph Lauren overnight. Would you ever want to be that big?

HARBISON: Yeah. [Laughs.] I love designing things. I feel like I have a dialogue for cars, homes, architecture. I love aesthetics. I would love to have the opportunity to configure aesthetics in different areas. As far as how big Ralph is, that is something that I think I’m still grappling with. For me, what is most valuable is having a lot of product for people to opt into. I want a lot of product in the world.

LEHRER: You sat out this fashion week. People talk about the speed of the industry – Raf leaving Dior, etc. Is that something you struggle with or not?

HARBISON: Yeah. The speed of the industry has brought me to my knees before. I think it can compromise design integrity. For me, skipping out this show season, I needed it from the business standpoint. I needed to figure out how to approach these marketing events in a way that’s more thoughtful of the business revenue. How do I give all these eyes access to the collection? You can opt out of [the traditional fashion schedule]. You don’t have to make four collections a year. You can make one. You can do this thing however you want to do it. That’s why I have so much respect for Raf and him walking away [from Dior]. It no longer worked for him, and that’s wonderful.

LEHRER: He’s supposed to be this radical, punk designer. Dior was weighing on him for a number of years. It was like he said, “Fuck that.”

HARBISON: Exactly. To be happy. How modern is that?

LEHRER: Did you have designers or artists that you looked up to when you first got into this? 

HARBISON: Yeah, Dries [Van Noten] and Azzedine [Alaia]. 

LEHRER: I was thinking about Dries when you were saying everything comes down to product. Dries has a way of telling a story only using pieces that he will sell on the racks. That’s definitely what I see with you. 

HARBISON: Thank you. That’s the goal. Dries has created a world that’s wholly his. His client base is totally devoted. My favorite pieces to wear are all Dries. I want to make that the case for Harbison. “I’m always going to go back to Harbison because it makes me happy.” I want my customers to say that


Visit Charles Harbison's website to see current collections. Text, interview and photographs by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Exploring Margiela's Genius: An Interview with Alison Chernick

photograph courtesy of Chernick

photograph courtesy of Chernick

How do you make a documentary about a subject who never shows his face and insists on being interviewed only by fax? When the subject is Martin Margiela and his eponymously named cult label Maison Martin Margiela, the legend alone is enough material. In the short documentary The Artist Is Absent, an obvious riff on Marina Abramović’s highly present retrospective performance at MoMA, documentarian filmmaker and writer Alison Chernick explores the myth, the legend, and the genius that is Margiela. Indeed, Margiela was a pivotal and controversial fulcrum in the world of high fashion – upcycling car seatbelts, blonde wigs and winter gloves, he created garments that defined sartorial rebellion and he made fashion adventurous. Starting with his breakout collection in 1989 and ending with his abrupt departure in 2009, the collections produced by Maison Margiela defied convention. The documentary, which has been produced by the Yoox Group, features the likes of Jean Paul Gautier, Raf Simons, and Geert Bruloot, who is largely credited with discovering Margiela and his talents. In the following interview, Chernick, who has created award-winning documentaries exploring artists like Matthew Barney and Julian Schnabel, talks to Autre about her first fashion documentary and her journey unlocking the mystery of Margiela. 

Autre: You’ve done a lot of documentaries about major contemporary visual artists, like Matthew Barney and Julian Schnabel, what was different about making a documentary about a designer versus making a documentary about an artist?  

Alison Chernick: A documentary on a fashion designer comes with an innate rhythm, a visual aesthetic, a beat that gives the footage fluidity as fashion is so much about body movement.  Fortunately for me he also is a complex and intriguing character so the film can also offer some deep commentary as well. A film on a visual artist is a totally different beast, often more esoteric with less of a natural rhythm.

Autre: What did you personally learn or discover about Margiela through the making of this documentary?

Chernick: What an original thinker he was. He was a leader, a provocateur, a maverick, a sentimentalist…the anti-designer. 

Autre: There has been a recent wave of documentaries about designers, why do you think fashion is being noticed more and more outside of the fashion world?

Chernick: Fashion is accessible to the masses and that’s why fashion films have such a large following. Everyone has to wear clothes; therefore each can connect to this material, literally, in some form or other.

Autre: If you were able to sit down with Margiela, what would you ask him?

Chernick: I'd chat with him about his new paintings - he's been painting and I look forward to seeing them.

A rare 1992 photo of Martin Margiela. Archives Villa Noailles

Autre: Have you always wanted to make documentary films?

Chernick: I sort of fell into it -- but there is an endless wealth of material to document, so there is never a shortage of topics -- its all pending accessibility

Autre: Can you name one documentary that really floored you, a documentary that made you want to make the same kind of films?

Chernick: How about docufiction? I often find that fiction can often get to the truth before documentary…I was floored by Hirokazu Koreeda's Nobody Knows. I’m also a big fan of Maurice Pialat. The Cove was pretty mind-blowing. Capturing the Friedmans was also was riveting. 

 Autre: Are there plans to making a feature length Margiela documentary?

Chernick: Not sure…not as of right now, but there has been talk.

Autre: What do you hope the audience watching the documentary will learn about the designer?

Chernick: I hope it will inspire artists to put fear aside and think outside the box, lead and don't follow. Follow your instinct. 

Autre: What’s next?

Chernick: Docufiction!

The Artist is Present will see its premier on Yoox – a premier fashion destination. There will also be selections from Margiela’s past collections available for purchase. You can explore Alison Chernick’s previous films on her website. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper