Two UVA Faculty Members Awarded Guggenheim Fellowships to Support Their Music, Filmmaking

Mamadou Dia (left) now teaches as an assistant professor of practice in the Departments of French and Media Studies, and Nicole Mitchell is a professor of composition and composition technologies in the Department of Music.
Photo of Mamadou Dia by Sheldon Chau; photo of Nicole Mitchell by Kristi Sutton Elias

Two recently arrived University of Virginia faculty members in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences received Guggenheim Fellowships to support their latest artistic works.

Mamadou Dia, an award-winning film director, screenwriter and former journalist from Senegal who now teaches as an assistant professor of practice in the Departments of French and Media Studies, and Nicole Mitchell, an award-winning flutist, composer and bandleader who is a professor of composition and composition technologies in the Department of Music, were among the 171 scholars, writers, artists and scientists recognized this year by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Established in 1925 to “further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions” the Foundation reviewed the portfolios of almost 2,500 applicants in choosing fellows based on their prior achievement and exceptional promise.

“UVA is committed to being an academic home for artists, teachers, and researchers who push the boundaries of their art and scholarly work,” Provost Ian Baucom said. “Professor Mitchell and Professor Dia each bring great talent and creativity to the Grounds, and I look forward to seeing and hearing the work they will produce with the support of their Guggenheim fellowships.”

Before transitioning to making feature films, Dia was a newspaper and video journalist based in Dakar, Senegal working for Agence France-Presse and other international news agencies in Africa and Europe. Completing his third year on UVA’s faculty, Dia first moved to the United States to complete his MFA in writing and directing at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts.

“In the end, I always find a way to tell stories with images. Filmmaking allows me to bring more complexity and nuance to the stories I want to tell. I’m not interested in superheroes or stories of ‘super resilient’ people who come from nothing and climb to the top of the world,” said Dia, co-founder of the production company Joyedidi with his business partner, Maba Ba. “I like to make movies about people who are normal people who are heroes of their own lives.”

Dia’s first feature film “Baamum Nafi/Nafi’s father” was Senegal’s 2021 Oscars entry for “Best International Feature.” His films have won numerous awards and have screened at major festivals, including Toronto, Lincoln Center and MoMA’s New Directors/New Films, Chicago and Venice. 

Dia said he will use his Guggenheim Fellowship funds to support research for his ambitious new feature-length project, a period film based in part on the life of African American photographer Augustus Washington. The son of a former slave, Washington embraced the abolitionist movement and was one of the few African American daguerreotypists — early photographers who produced their work on silver or silver-covered copper plates — whose 19th century work has been documented. Washington moved to the West African nation of Liberia with his wife and two small children in late 1853 and eventually opened daguerrean studios in Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Senegal, as well as Liberia.

Dia said this new film will show the story of French colonial encroachment in west Africa through three different perspectives: Washington’s, that of the last queen of Waalo (one of the last kingdoms in present-day Senegal) and that of a local woman from the island of Saint-Louis, on the northwest coast of Senegal married to a French military officer.

Andrea Press, UVA’s William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Media Studies and Sociology, said that the Department of Media Studies faculty are extremely proud to have Dia as a colleague.

“His Guggenheim Fellowship award for his latest project testifies to the value of his cinematic work, which gives voice to the voiceless," Press said.

A Department of French colleague, Professor Alison Levine, said it’s a privilege for faculty and students alike to work with a professor with such a unique and prominent profile in the international film industry. “Working across four languages and multiple genres (journalism, documentary, and narrative fiction), Dia shares his deep knowledge of screenwriting and directing, as well as West African history, arts and culture with students in both departments.”

A big ‘wow’

Mitchell is a more recent arrival to UVA’s faculty, joining the Department of Music in fall 2022. For more than 20 years, Mitchell’s critically acclaimed Chicago-based Black Earth Ensemble (BEE) has served as her primary performance group and outlet for her compositions. She has performed at festivals and art venues throughout Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Earlier this year, she won a prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music.

A celebrated flutist whose unique improvisational style has earned her numerous “Flutist of the Year” awards from Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association (2010-22), Mitchell performs and composes solo works as well as pieces for contemporary ensembles, jazz bands and orchestras. Her notable works celebrating African American culture include her 2020 BEE recording, “EarthSeed,” inspired by the work of science fiction author Octavia Butler.

“It’s a big ‘wow’ for me to have received this fellowship,” Mitchell said this week. “It’s just an amazing honor.”

Mitchell’s Guggenheim fellowship will support production of her latest composition. “Portraits of Sonic Freedom” is meant to be a concert-length work of music inspired by the work of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago-based music collective scheduled to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2025.

On Grounds, in addition to teaching a graduate course on the relationship between musical improvisation and composition and designing a course for next fall on how jazz improvisers address contemporary social issues through their music, Mitchell says she looks to forward future collaborations with faculty colleagues. One discussed project, with Department of Music colleagues JoVia Armstrong and A.D. Carson, would aim to serve as a platform for art and creativity from throughout the African diaspora.

“Nicole’s imagination is her superpower. I've been working with her since the year 2000, and it's been a great pleasure watching her manifest what seems impossible,” said Armstrong, a percussionist, composer and assistant professor of music.

Carson, an assistant professor of hip hop, said he’s excited to work with Mitchell and Armstrong on what will be called the Center for Afro-Diasporic Imagination.

“The [Music] department and the College have had stated goals and aspirations that both Nicole and JoVia’s work in the world and presence at UVA bring just a little closer to realization,” he said. “I’m deeply honored to have the opportunity to imagine with them.”

Coming to UVA to continue her work has helped her be centered, Mitchell said.

“I feel a great optimism at UVA. I feel that the University is really making an effort to look at its history and make transformations that are real. That’s what really inspires me,” she said. “That’s what drew me to UVA, and I just feel really excited about becoming a part of this great community of faculty members and students where there is still optimism. Even in spite of the terrible things going on around us, there is still a sense of ‘we can do something about this.’ That sense of support and optimism is what helps me be able to do my work.”