Copper, a short film directed by Summer Mason, opens with a tall black woman (dancer Minkah Smith) sitting in a barbershop chair. Stacks of books and magazines create a canyon around her as an old man combs her nearly bald head. With a depth of field so short that the background blurs into a garden of colors and bright light, the camera follows her tightly as she exits past a line of softly stoic black women wearing white. Draped in a sculptural dress evocative of a barber’s gown, she falls into a devastating dance with the camera as her partner, following her harrowing movements like a lover, allowing her body to occupy the entire frame.
The 14-minute dialogue-less film is the centerpiece of the synonymously-titled third “season” (read: major project release) of ONX, a creative collective and platform focusing on the black experience, particularly through a queer lens — of which Mason is the creative director. The season, which also includes a magazine full of gorgeous photographs by collective members such as Santana Bellas, Peri Hatun, and Eileen Li, and poetry by Malcolm Thompson, intends to reimagine black death by separating black grief from images of violence.
“I think a lot of the time when you’re on Facebook or Instagram you see these terrible videos of black bodies being brutalized,” Mason says, “and I feel like black death is something that’s inevitable… It’s not always violence, it’s not always brutalization. It could be not having access to healthcare, it could be suicide, it could be dying of old age or even having your soul die and not feeling whole in your body.”
The images in the magazine align with scenes in the film, showing processions of femmes of color on a beach, androgynous models baroquely styled in front of floral backgrounds, and entangled dancers in a dank concrete setting with a greenish tinge akin to oxidized metal. (As Mason explains, the material copper alludes to blood through scent and taste without actually showing any red.) Each scene seems to depict a different stage of grief and healing, from trauma to depression and, ultimately, to heavenly peace.
ONX was born three years ago when Mason (who uses the pronoun ‘they’), then a film student at UC Berkeley, took leadership over the school’s black student publication Onyx Express. Met with resistance when attempting to breathe life back into the little-known platform, they quickly decided to separate the publication from the school, seek independent funding, and overhaul its staff and brand. Since, the magazine has matured into a multi-disciplinary platform that reaches far beyond the community of black creatives at Cal, folding in talent from a broader pool of Bay Area photographers, filmmakers, dancers, models, stylists, poets, and musicians.
In their role as creative director, Mason also began including non-black artists of color in ONX — collaborations that they framed as creative allyship. Among those artists are Jasdeep Kang, who gracefully filmed Copper; and Josephine Shetty (who performs as Kohinoorgasm), who initially provided some of the soundtrack for the film. But over the course of this summer, Mason has decided to transition the collective back to exclusively black membership.
Mason came to the decision during the initial release of Copper on February 25 at B4bel4b Gallery in Oakland. The art show and screening quickly grew into a joyous function, with young queer black and brown attendees overflowing from the venue. Mason had the acute feeling that non-black artists and audience members were taking up too much space at an event that was meant to be centered on the black experience. And just as Mason was dealing with that realization, the police arrived to shut everything down.
“Here we are discussing black death, and the first thing that’s associated with black death are cops,” Mason recalls. “So it was really upsetting. I really wanted to make sure I corrected that.”
Mason took the intrusion as a sign that the setting was off, and seized the opportunity to re-present the work with more intention. They decided to re-edit the film to minimize non-black involvement, and Petty offered to find a black singer — ultimately, Chrystia Cabral, a.k.a. Spellling — to re-record her vocal contributions. Recently, ONX showed the work in a three-day pop-up show at Sliding Space 123, a student-run gallery on the Mills College campus. There, as the sun was setting on April 28, Mason and other black members of ONX sat on a panel after a screening of the second cut of Copper (sans non-black voices) to reflect on the meaning of the work and the intention to foster black-only platforms, while an audience sat quietly listening.
“I personally think that the people that know black images most and black narratives most are black people,” Mason says later in an interview, “and while I feel that POC have a space in black movements, I think the only people to really get that going and fuel it with the emotion it needs are black people.” While Kang’s creative allyship manifested in long conversation about Mason’s experiences and visions, Mason says that when working with other black creatives, they’re collaboratively able to articulate specific experiences of black being that can’t necessarily be put into words.
The process of cementing the intention around the work also allowed Mason, who recently began identifying as trans, to realize latent meaning attached to the piece: the death of their “black femininity.” That reframing has inspired Mason to reshoot the final scene in the film, this time bringing in queer dancer Saturn Jones.
The final version will be shown as part of The Black Aesthetic film series at Nook Gallery on May 18, and as part of another ONX Season 3: Copper exhibition at Starline Social Club on May 27. For the Starline event, Mason has been planning to put in environmental cues that will frame the space more as an art show and less as a party. And, to achieve their other goal of centering black artists, Mason will be employing a less subtle tactic: In the middle of the evening, they will lead a march of black individuals from a nearby location to Starline Social Club, loudly interrupting the evening to demand absolute attention.
“It’s making sure that non-black people know how to navigate a black art space,” Mason says, “and that just means not taking up space.”
To learn more about ONX and purchase a copy of Copper magazine, see here.