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Liz Maelane: Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Experimental Animation

Welcome back to our blog series featuring the often under-recognized ethics-related work graduate students are doing across the university, whether it be through their research, advocacy, mentoring, or community building.

Liz Maelane, who is completing her MFA in Art Practice, taught Experimental Animation: Process as Product for the Hope House Scholars Program this past fall 2022. The Hope House Scholars Program is a collaboration between the Ethics Center and Stanford Continuing Studies that provides Hope House residents — women participating in its drug and alcohol treatment programing — with access to college-level courses. 

Liz’s primary artistic and teaching interest is experimental animation — animation that pushes the boundaries of conventional animation by using a variety of materials and stop motion techniques. She also pushes the boundaries of experimental media art by learning from and foregrounding the creative practices of various indigenous/vernacular cultural groups across Africa and the Americas.

The Center for Ethics in Society spoke with Liz about “bringing the seemingly disparate worlds of digital animation and indigenous knowledge systems together” to create and teach experimental animation. An edited version of the conversation appears below.

You’re currently earning an MFA in art practice at Stanford. Has being a practicing artist been a long-time goal of yours? 

For a long time I lied to myself about wanting a career in high design, so I studied architecture as an undergraduate in Cape Town, South Africa. But I was going through a lot at that time and ended up leaving before my final year. I moved to Kenya and worked there for two years as an arts and culture writer, editor, and photographer, which meant I spent a lot of time interviewing and talking to artists in their studios. I knew that I wanted to go back to school, and luckily, I was nudged into doing what I had always wanted to do — animated filmmaking. 

Instead of going to film school, though, I went to art school, which really changed things for me. I spent three and a half years at Tufts University studying video and animation, really grounding myself in digital media. And after working for some producers and in an interactive art space in LA for a year, I applied for my MFA in art practice at Stanford. I began the program in fall 2020 and I am now working towards my thesis exhibition in May.

Are you still studying digital media? 

I am. I’m most interested in the contemporary art of the African diaspora, particularly digital media and animation coming from black artists in different contexts around the world. More specifically, I produce and teach abstract art making and experimental animation.

Experimental animation, unlike conventional commercial forms of animation like those produced by Disney, Pixar and even anime artists, really plays with the medium of animation and stop motion (animation captured one frame at time by moving physical objects between frames) by utilizing different kinds of materials and techniques. You can use things like charcoal, paint, cut paper, food coloring and sponges to create individual frames, collaging together different elements, and then shooting them using stop motion. You can also use non-representational images, not worrying about depicting a face exactly as a face, but maybe just representing the emotion or energy behind the face or the story you're trying to tell by juxtaposing different shapes and colors and patterns and movement to capture the emotion and spirit of an idea.

How and why did you decide to teach at Hope House?

My department forwarded an email announcement about this teaching opportunity and I was super curious. I went to an info session and heard about all of the different kinds of classes that were being taught, but I knew I wanted to teach an animation class. So in fall 2022, I taught Experimental Animation: Process as Product, which was loosely based on my experimental animation undergraduate course, “Animated by Origins,” where students learn about experimental animation and abstract art making from various indigenous cultural groups in Africa and the Americas.

I was excited to teach at Hope House because one of my goals is to provide more entry points for practicing art. Art has always been a privileged field to go into because of the difficult economic world we live in. And art is usually the last thing policymakers or education boards think to center in an effort to grow low-income communities or help move them forward. One of my classmates, who’s from a working-class background in Yucatan, explained that his aim is to fight for the right — and the funding — for people from these kinds of communities to get paid for doing projects that allow them to dream and imagine. 

I want to engage and create with people who feel like they've been overlooked or misunderstood by society. Experimental animation is an interesting way for people to capture their stories and memories and breathe new life into them, to imagine them in a different light. It’s about establishing a sense of power, authority and agency for creating.

How did you teach experimental animation at Hope House?

I knew the Hope House students wouldn’t have access to all of the digital tools we used in my undergrad course, so I had to make it far more DIY. In hindsight, that is why I loved the Hope House class so much. It reminded me how much I like making animations using handheld materials. 

I started by having the students get comfortable with abstracting things. In one of the early classes I created a still life situation using a flower pot and some foods. I told the students to draw what they were seeing for a minute, but only using squares; then another minute only using circles; and then another minute only using lines without lifting up their pens. 

At the same time, we were having conversations about what abstract art is, why it matters, and comparing abstract art and artists famous in the Western canon, like Mark Rothko, to the work of very well known aboriginal female artists, whose aboriginal communities have a tradition of creating dark paintings. We talked about the intensely spiritual roots of the aboriginal paintings, the effects they produce and the reach they have globally versus Rothko’s art. We even talked about how to discuss art beyond the binaries of what looks good and what doesn’t, of what is good and what isn't. These conversations were a really good way to get students more comfortable with making weird things without worrying so much about what they looked like. 

I only had my tablet and a phone to use as a shooting station, so I set it up and had students shoot the drawing series and collages with moving puppets they’d made. The first time I showed them how to take what they’d made and use stop motion to create and play back their animations, everyone was like “Whoa!” That’s usually how people react, which is why I just love it — it's like magic. You're making something come to life that wasn't alive before. "

Where do you see yourself going after you complete your MFA? 

I plan to do my PhD next so I can continue to create a more balanced pedagogy within art, abstract art, and media arts by bringing together the seemingly disparate worlds of digital animation and indigenous knowledge systems. 

I envision myself running an arts education nonprofit in marginalized areas, like the rural areas in Africa where my parents grew up — and beyond. I want people to know that they don't need a formal education in art history. They already have tons of knowledge about pattern and repetition and textiles and movement and sound and visuals and how to put visuals together in striking ways. This is essential to everything that I'm doing now and where I want to take my work in the future.


Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor, and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.