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This St. Louis Artist Found Connection in a Time of Disconnection

Experimental Short Film Now Showing at Mid-America Arts Alliance

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Above image credit: Cami Thomas is a native of St. Louis. Her recent work is part of the Reflect / Project series at the Mid-America Arts Alliance. (Contributed)

Câmi Thomas, despite living in a moment of isolation and dislocation, says she feels connected to her community in ways she hadn’t before.

A few months ago, Thomas had just left Chicago and returned to live in St. Louis, her hometown. The day after she moved into her apartment, she, her friends and girlfriend congregated, six feet apart, in a semicircle to air out how life had changed, amid civil unrest and the pandemic ravaging the world.  

It was the first time they could be together since life went on lockdown. And though forced to sit several feet away, she felt close.

“It was the first time I felt like I could breathe,” Thomas said. “It was the first time I felt like I could, you know, cry.” 

Tapping into those emotions compelled her to capture a moment in this strange time. The conversations she had with her friends that day inspired her to pick up her camera.

Her work became the experimental short film entitled “Tuko Saso” — meaning “We are Now” in Swahili. The film is now showing at the Mid-America Arts Alliance through Dec. 3 as part of Reflect/Project. Her contribution focuses on the Black experience here and abroad.  

“It’s hard to feel safe when you’re Black and it feels like you’re being hunted, you know?” Thomas said. “I don’t think this project would have happened if I didn’t feel free.”

She said her family and friends gave her that vote of confidence. 

The 27-year-old filmmaker is known to thread race relations and humanity through each piece, using pain points to weave a portrait. This is present in her docuseries from a couple of years ago called “Smoke City,” which landed her in the national spotlight in Teen Vogue

In “Smoke City” she hit on gun violence, police, blight and racism. In “Tuko Saso” she focuses on human connectivity in a quiet, contemplative way. 

“A lot of my artwork subconsciously is tied to healing from trauma,” she added.

During most of the four-minute film, Thomas narrates, reciting her own poem. The artist talks of playing with her sister as children, digging holes in their backyard with their bare hands “to discover what was waiting beneath the surface of our sandbox.”

Her words punch through as the images of herself, friends and a young boy flash by, interrupted only by the sound of white noise and TV color bars. Thomas said one particular conversation helped shape this project — one she had with her grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran. 

The theme that emerged was fear and liberation.

“During quarantine, I would just listen to him about the topic of fear and letting go of fear. And I realized a lot of my work… came from a place of fear,” she said, recalling his anecdotes of flying over Vietnam. “Being inspired to release that really did a lot for me.”

Behind the scenes, Thomas is “like a Type A and Type B person swirled together,” said her girlfriend Hannah De Olivera, who is from Brazil. Thomas sought to connect the dots within the Black diaspora, exploring the experiences from people in St. Louis to Brazil to Nigeria.  

“She tends to create with this vision of what she would like to see and how she would like the world to be,” De Olivera said.

Her close friends agree. 

“Her work is a reflection of what’s happening right now in the world,” said Nyara Williams, who appeared in the short film. “We all can feel it. And because of her lens, we all can see it.”

Williams said she has watched Thomas during her journey and it always brings her back to the day they met. It was downtown Chicago, near a lake, dancing and singing after scarfing down burnt hot dogs.

Something about her newest film hits differently, she said. But it maintains a sense of belonging and liberation.

“Her words and imagery always feel as if you’re dancing by a campfire with your homies,” Williams added. 

If audiences are able to experience her film during the exhibit, which is up in the air because of the rise in COVID-19 cases, Thomas said her hope is for others to see her film as a mirror as well as a conduit for change. 

“We have everything we need to make something different in the future,” she said. “If these interruptions didn’t happen, these big moments of everyone being shaken up, who’s to say that we wouldn’t just go down the same path with the same trajectory, towards negativity? 

“So I’d say right now, we as a society seem equally qualified to really sort of break the strongholds that have had us down for so long.” 

Reflect/Project is a series at the Mid-America Arts Alliance that elevates work of LGBTQ+ artists of color and artists whose work is focused on social topics and issues. Câmi Thomas was the series’ artist for November. Her exhibition includes supplementary work by artists Bino and Maleeha Samer and will be on display through Dec. 3.

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