Busy Vitrine: Collective // Condensed \\ Curation

Longish Read //
Live and Experimental //
this report will breathe – expanding and contracting as the affects of the experiences
it responds to do too //
Itinerant //
This is not the first and only iteration and will not be the last.

In 2015 alongside the rest of my cohort, I was given two books to read as reference texts while on a curatorial learning and development programme, ‘Curating Conversations’ developed by independent film and moving image curator, writer and researcher Karen Alexander. The first, ‘The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture’ Paul O’Neill, 1970 in which Okwui Enwezor’s notions of curating beyond the canon have been an influence on my thinking of collective curation. When asked to write a report documenting and describing the process of the joining the Rita Keegan Archive Project (RKAP), and making the archival exhibition at the South London Gallery (SLG), I then ran to pick up the second book, ‘How to Write about Contemporary Art’ feeling the pressure of writing crucial art history I felt I needed to hear how the experts do it. On page 130, Williams outlines the functions of short descriptive texts, ‘Condense a complicated multi-part artwork into just a few sentences’ this advice felt like the reality of making the archival exhibition, or at least for the parts I have contributed. The insecurity that led me to always look for an expert comes from making work in a world where the ‘truly me’ shaped mould has been forbidden, yet continually tries to fit you into that of another, as the other. I think we all know that does not work or as my mum would say,

‘Dat deh won deh nah gah mek it, it nah mek it atall’

The process of turning inwards means I witness my interior landscapes and the affect the exposure and re-exposure to these works have had. I wish to share these changes and growth with you. I need to share with you as the expansion happens, ‘live and direct’. The knowledge I need to write this piece is in these works and myself, as the experts have written what they experienced. This process reminds me that we are enough, more than enough. Unlike the book, this piece will not be in the ‘art-worlds’ mother tongue, not only because I do not speak it, or because the artists the archive hold and highlight were not well versed, believe me, they were and still are, but because it is their over-standing that fuels my departure from the dominant structure. I oppose this codified language because I wish to share an ethical provenance to centralise and expose the importance of the present time, its politics and cultural context. In this piece, I strive to combine anecdotes, lived experience, and the radical joy of being surrounded by inspirational peoples art and working alongside inspirational people, you may not yet see in references or bibliographies. Since writing these pieces’ the first six iterations, I have read and reread the new and the old.

I can not share which at this moment as I focus on translating and rendering my experience for you. But in time, I will. The privilege of being able to work with such rare and precious documents and their affects has invoked these poetics. This radical praxis is an attempt to share an experimental learning journey. Documenting my processes and findings, the expertise of Rita, RKAP team and the other artists who feature in the archive that influence the style, structure and contents of this collection. My courage to develop this approach came from reading Poetics of Relation, by Edouard Glissant a book given to me by professor artist, activist, Denise Ferreira da Silva to enhance a feeling of legitimacy I lacked in my philosophical and theoretical expression. I asked for forgiveness from those that have laid theses foundations as in my learning journey to freedom of speech, I walk your paths as they emerge with both bold urgency and agency, not as a means to reinvent, but because your call for freedom still echoes and in these reverberations, I find solace and connection. In these words, in this way, I feel liberation.

When I arrived at Rita’s home to join the project, it dawned on me that we were collectively curating the archival existence with a living artist, that this was to go into one vitrine (150 x 50 x 96 cm). Into a vitrine to be viewed as a comprehensive representation of a lifetime of collecting, documenting, preserving, and conserving evidence of not only her artistic contribution but that of others, namely artists of colour with a focus on women and their allies. Ahhhhhhh breath, it is a tough act. I felt the heavyweight of the books and artist paraphernalia start to ooze down from the ceiling, spread out from under, behind the sofa and down the stairs, out through the garden, the sheds are buckling about to explode. It was all sitting on our shoulders. My shoulders hunched over, ouch! I remember as are we on the shoulders of our ancestors. Aghhhhhh breath. The grand selection of 100 pieces was made by Rita and Ego before I formally rejoined the project. So I had to work from there. In my minds-eye, I start to see a collage, a messy patchwork guilty of overlapping and intersecting happenings, old dry PVA glue and folded page corners.

textile + text + photos + letters + books + drawings + books + postcards.

The vitrine was busy because Rita’s career was so. This translated into the physical montage of the blurring categories. I had placed the shape-shifting pieces that moved around the table, not fitting anywhere and everywhere at the same time. It’s not just how the documents look it is also their content, context and how these relationships relate to our cultural futures. There are so many people you want to honour the materials are a broad range of;

photographs &
original prints &
Photocopies &
paintings &
illustrations &
personal letters &
exhibition catalogues &
promotional materials

I mapped our patterns, noting overlapping and intersecting are also present in the collective curation process we employed. The group approach destabilises the accepted curatorial framework and distributing and magnifying the power and multiplies the views, visions and perspectives. In the resistance to editing pieces down to a minimal classic formation, we resist the divide and rule of the collective effort and consciousness that has developed the work and its context. Although, what is busy may appear unrefined from a classic exhibition-making standpoint, what is truly busy are the lives of artists that work against the multiple structures of editing, control, and cleansing every day. This is not only the workings, conservation and preservation of an artists estate. Besides, we strive and apply ourselves consciously in the designing and nurturing of the ethics and sustainability for vessels that are fit for our generations and beyond. These methodologies leave gaps and doors ajar appealing to others to feel free and roll through.

That night I dreamt of the vitrine stacked high as it could be, filled with copy art, postcards, paintings, books, photographs and papers. In my waking moments, I wished I could have made my dream come true, but with everything in life, it’s more manageable with space around to breath and rest. Maybe compromise is peaceful, or perhaps I was too weak and tired. My intuition began to make strong sense to me to use the transitional power of collage in Rita’s work, and how this had allowed her to place histories, social and racial tensions, gender and spirituality on one page. The works are not weighed down by the burden of the historical content but strive and achieve success in their joy and celebration. Collage began to serve as a visual manifesto for an invitation to view longer and share the accomplishments of Rita and those she collaborated with. Also, it interrupts the white noise of the expected display and directs you to investigate why the objects are touching. To create breathing space, I started to categorise the vitrine entries into six groups and gave them titles, as follows,


  1. Books + Publications: which included magazines and journals that feature Rita. Two of the four books that feature Rita are left outside the vitrine to be handled and read at leisure. 2019, Duke University Press, BloodFlowers, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Photography, and the 1980’s by W. Ian Bourland and Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966-1996 (1998) the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition is a far-reaching educational journey. This section also showcased books Rita had produced cover illustrations for, such as Homemade Love, by J. California Cooper.
  2. Group + Solo Exhibitions: The selection for the shows was the part I most enjoyed because it helps shape the relationships between the artists whilst allowing us to revisit their works and trajectory. For the group shows we include exhibition catalogue and invitation letter for Black Women in View (1986), Battersea Arts Center. Passion: Black Women’s Creativity of the African Diaspora (1989), The Elbow Room Gallery, exhibition poster, invite + brochure. Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966 – 1996 (1998) exhibition pamphlet. Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966 – 1996 (1998) exhibition catalogue. Trophies of Empire (1992) private view invite + U-Matic Tape. A full list of artists involved below*.
  3. Black Women Artists Collectives + Black (British) Feminisms: We selected meeting minutes from the Black Women’s Artists Study Group (1995) 30th October and 27th November 1995, this document is not only fascinating because of the women who had gathered but also for the intimacy it shares of a closed group discussion. I especially like the references to the technology of the day as it creates strong visual references to the time, Ingrid Pollard’s walkman, Zineb Sedira’s slide projector and Rita’s access to an Apple Mac (Style writer).
  4. White Feminisms + Women’s Art Library + Women’s Artist Slide Library: We decided to make a racial distinction between the feminist groups to highlight their positions at the time the documents are dated but also to demonstrate the role Rita played in bridging the gap and keeping Women of Colour in the frame via her role at Women Artist Slide Library.
  5. Rita’s Relationships with other Artists: Originally, this was a huge section which included invitations, gifts such as photographs and postcards, letters, publications. However when we got into the archive room at the SLG it was the section we cut back the most, we gave it a hard prune and then replaced and private view invitation from Joy Gregory to her show, ‘The Amberley Queens, Pallant House, Chichester, UK (2000)’. It may come as no surprise that there were entries that crossed many categories such as the book by Hagiwara Hiroko, Storms of the Heart-Black Women Artists in the UK Speak (1990) Japan, as this feature had come through a lasting friendship between Rita and Hagiwara and also takes a black feminist thought stance. However, some came as a surprise such as the correspondence envelope from African and Asian Visual Artists Archive (AAVAA) which we discovered held a Christmas card in it from the Birmingham born artist Donald Rodney (1961-1998). Just18th months before he passed away. Rodney had his last solo show, Nine Night in Eldorado at SLG which featured photographic triptych, Flesh of My Flesh, 1996, now part of their contemporary collection. There are portraits of Rita taken by Ajamu and Rotimi Fani-Kayode, those outside the vitrine were worked on by Dominique Z. Barron.
  6. Rita in the Institutional Landscape: This section held correspondence with universities, galleries, broadcasters, museums, and of course, funders.
  7. Rita +: Some documents that bared no category as they were unique entries so stood their ground in being included in the vitrine. Rita was involved in an educational Art Theme Pack W28, we are not clear the exact date, but the card pack was designed to teach key stages 1&2, the A4 deck was produced by David Petts, Artists in Education and included a self-portrait and biographical details.

 

We have a few things to thank for the compressed nature of the curation.

Time + Experience (historical + present + primary + Secondary) + Responsibility + resources + Potential (to be seen) + opportunity (to lead to more work)

What is not in the vitrine? Why are somethings better left unseen? We are aware that with all power structures, the decision-makers are a type of gatekeeper to what becomes available. Institutions come with their implicit constraints natural to their constitution. Sometimes these constraints can be made into opportunity, we were agile enough to move quickly in filling to gap in calendar to make the archival exhibition. When the missions overlap their powers can serve the artists. The collective curatorial strategy helped as via Simon we were able to offer books that can be handled, freeing up space in the vitrine and expanding the access to necessary contextualisation via the two publications 2019, Duke University Press, BloodFlowers, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Photography, and the 1980s by W. Ian Bourland and Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966-1996 (1998). We had also planned to have a resource folder left next to the audiovisual works at viewing stations. With institutions can also come additional support from the technical team, which is also usually ‘us’ the artist/s or collective when acting independently. This is a luxury we don’t take lightly, respecting them as the backbone of what we physically see in the gallery.

I made a connection through our bodies, my shoulders weighted heavy and the back of my heart nervously tense. I watched as their backs and shoulders weighed heavy as they helped us hang the show, holding still as we moved a centimetre here and there, being patient as we moved everything back to the start again. We were able to spot the taller of the two’s pain as it resembled our wounds of making it, the show, tense back of the heart at the thought we had forgotten someone and that this opportunity to shine our light for them may never come again. These guys were patient because that are also artists. They also work in a technical capacity to support their visual practices helping others with transferable artistic skills. Ego and I talked with our eyes, a non-verbal survival strategy you perfect when immersed in necessary incommodiousness within institutions. I wanted to reach out a hand on the shoulder to say,

‘Are you feeling, ok?’

Open-mouthed but too self-conscious and afraid my caring was unprofessional, or I would be told it is none of my business, I resisted. I closed my mouth, and out of my silence Ego opened hers to ask the taller of the two.

‘Do you get bodywork.. hmm you know, like body therapies for your shoulder/back pain?’

Within many healing modalities of bodywork pain in the upper back and shoulders is related to our connection to the responsibility you feel for others. It has been our therapy to honour and observe this archive/body of work, and in this collective process, we take care of each other, the artists within the body and our futures. I made an application to do a placement at Flat Time House, the living sculpture and archive of conceptual artist John Latham, split into parts of the body with a member of the team living inside the sculpture/house activating the archive/body. It so happened that, one of the artist//technicians was on the interviewing panel as digital producer and I bumped into the taller of the two in the lockdown supermarket queue. I had just finished writing about them. Sadly, I didn’t get the placement. Which I was disappointed by. But what was fascinating is that I discovered Rita had an ongoing connection Latham, for at least six years before he passed away in 2006 and produced a collage in collaboration with conceptual artist Barbara Steveni (Latham) and artists/curator/educator Barby Asante amongst others for SERP Reactivated (2018) Sadly, Barbara Steveni passed away this Feb 2020.

I look forward to talking more with Rita about this project, her relationship with the Lathams’ and updating you.

What this compressed curation has brought is the ability to produce a second wave of stimulus from what did not make the cut. Alongside this, we felt that from beyond the glass, some documents command a more comprehensive analysis and discursive approach. So we can better share what is inside, or on the back, through in-depth, reflective and reflexive pieces. 

So look out for Passion / Transforming Trophies / Soweto Sisters/ Donald Rodney’s Christmas card, portraiture from Ajamu and Rotimi.

Sources

‘How to write about contemporary Art’ Gilda Williams (2014) Thames and Hudson, London

List of artists/curators/galleries in the ‘Solo and Group Exhibitions’ sections of the archival vitrine display.

Black Women in View (1986) exhibition catalogue. Battersea Arts Centre. Carole Enahoro, Lorraine Luke, Ogu Nnachi, Susie Nottingham, Louise Owen, Elaine Somerville, Paula Williams.

Trophies of Empire (1992) private view invite. Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool.
Paul Clarkson, South Atlantic Souvenirs & Trouble, Juginder Lamba, Shaheen Merali, Veena Stephenson

Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966 – 1996 (1998) exhibition pamphlet. Curated by Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd, The Caribbean Cultural Center, in partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts and The Studio Museum in Harlem

Passion: Black Women’s Creativity of the African Diaspora (1989), The Elbow Room Gallery. Curated by Maud Sulter. Exhibition poster + brochure Large single sheet landscape fold-out (4 panels) brochure/40x23cm/monochrome type and double-sided image print on thick semi-gloss paper. Featured Artists Texts: Angele Etoundi Essamba, Dionne Sparks, Ingrid Pollard, Lubaina Himid, Michelle Parkerson. + exhibition invite Single sheet A4 portrait landscape/thick maroon card folded into 4 panels/monochrome text printed across a single side.