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Artist Profile: Siblings Ruby and Joseph Douglas Elmhirst Fuse Voices in Their Short Film ‘Burnt Milk’

Ruby and Joseph Elmhirst speaking at "Ritual Imaginations" on Nov. 9 at the Harvard ArtLab.
Ruby and Joseph Elmhirst speaking at "Ritual Imaginations" on Nov. 9 at the Harvard ArtLab. By Courtesy of the Harvard ArtLab and Courtesy of Mack McKenzie
By Elise M. Guerrand, Contributing Writer

Ruby Elmhirst cannot recall a time when she and her brother, Joseph Douglas Elmhirst, were not creating art.

“We’ve always kind of been doing things, I would say, across different mediums really, since we were very young,” she said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.

The British-Jamaican siblings have channeled their creative energies in a wide range of artistic fields. Joseph Douglas Elmhirst is a filmmaker and writer while Ruby Elmhirst is a creative producer involved in fashion, store concept, and set design.

These unique storytelling capacities have led the artists to fruitful collaborations, the latest of which, “Burnt Milk,” was directed by Joseph Douglas Elmhirst and produced by Ruby Elmhirst. The short film was included in the British Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, marking Elmhirst as the first filmmaker to be included in the history of the British Pavilion. The film was also recently screened at Harvard’s ArtLab in a show curated by Loeb/ArtLab fellow Joseph Zeal Henry.

“Burnt Milk” depicts a Jamaican woman in London who is inundated with spiritual imagery of her homeland while making the traditional dish of burnt milk. The narrative alludes to the broader emotional tensions produced by the diaspora of Caribbean immigrants who relocated to the United Kingdom after World War Two.

“I’ve been also making films in Jamaica and about Jamaica for the last three years,” Joseph Douglas Elmhirst said. “And I had been really interested in spirituality and how that was represented in film and curious about attempting to bring that into my own visual language.”
This visual language owes much to the artist’s mother, “Miss Ronnie” Elmhirst, whose novel served as the inspiration for the film.

“She [‘Miss Ronnie’] has always been very concerned with ritual and routine and the sense of safety. And that’s particularly important to isolated individuals or members of diasporic community,” Ruby Elmhirst said.

This multigenerational collaboration is fitting given the film’s focus on yearning for home and the intergenerational struggles of displacement, highlighting the importance of Jamaica as both a personally resonant and historically rich context in which to situate their work.

This does not go without unique challenges, however. While completing research for the film, Joseph Elmhirst had to confront absences in Jamaica’s historical archive.

“I was really interested in researching passed-down African rituals that are somewhat still present in Jamaica and it was very difficult because it’s interesting how little ritual practices outside of Christianity are documented,” he said. “So I had to look at some other islands like Haiti.”

This amalgamation of voices from disparate cultures and locations in one body of work reflects the artists’ interests in highlighting the ambiguity of time in the film. In particular, Joseph Douglas Elmhirst was inspired by audio recordings he found from Jamaica in the ’50s.

“You could hear this same sound that I’m used to hearing, which is tree frogs and different insects and it's like this orchestra. And I love that sound, said Joseph Douglas Elmhirst. Because if it was recorded then and I can hear it now, it's a universal sound, which means it was almost always heard.”

Since its inclusion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, “Burnt Milk” has taken on a life of its own. The film has been screened at numerous festivals, including the Urbanworld Film Festival and the Leeds International Film Festival, and recently won the Best Short Film at the 2023 Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago.

Joseph Elmhirst is optimistic about the new phase the film has entered and the possibility for it to pierce a broader consciousness.

“It was really interesting to be able to be a part of a project that has begun in an art space and then been able to find this voice in the film space and go to several film festivals.”

Unlike other art forms, film’s mobility as a weightless medium means it can transcend geographical borders and reach audiences that may not have access to art shows or exhibitions like the Biennale. Elmhirst held this to be true in the case of “Burnt Milk,” which has been shown all over the world, including in informal settings.

“The first territories that it played in directly after the Biennale were Caribbean territories and mostly free,” Elmhirst said. “It played in Jamaica last month at a free screening, so it’s really cool to be able to share it with different audiences.”

Moving forward, Ruby Elmhirst will resume her work in fashion and design alongside emerging photographers and other filmmakers.

Joseph Douglas Elmhirst continues to find inspiration in the stories of Jamaica and its neighboring islands. He is currently working on compiling contemporary Caribbean art for a new book.

“I’m really interested in what voices share beyond heritage,” he said. “I think that there are obviously other things that are uniting, and I’m really curious about how people bounce off of each other.”

While the artists’ talents may ultimately lead them in different directions, the success of their collaboration is proof of the creative threads that connect them.

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