“Her visitors came from around the world and it was quite a commitment for people to travel out to this 15th century Tudor palace in the middle of a park in southwest London. Undaunted, there were many Black artists, scholars and students who would make that trip to see Rita. I quickly understood how this feminist art library project thrived and produced new knowledge through the art of conversation and welcome in that front room, and most of this was achieved at Rita’s desk.”
My time working with Rita Keegan at the Women Artists Slide Library was spent in Fulham Palace where the WASL was based from 1983-2000. She presided with her back to the fireplace in the room we knew as the Bishop’s Library – now reclaimed as Bishop Terrick’s Drawing Room featuring an elaborate plasterwork ceiling and chandelier. Here is where the WASL kept the library collection and card-racks of artists postcards and magazines for sale. The books and magazines were arranged in the original built-in shelves along one wall and two banks of filing cabinets were crammed with files of slides or press cuttings. Two large light tables and various work stations accommodated the staff and volunteers assigned to working with the collection, organizing the constant stream of slides and papers that arrived along with the WASL researchers and visitors. From her desk Rita had a full view of the room and the high shuttered windows that looked out onto the lawn, chapel and trees of the Palace grounds. This is where the Women of Colour Index was brought together, letters of introduction drawn up, signed and stuffed in envelopes, file labels typed up, black cultural institutions listed, British Black and Asian women artists’ names recorded and contacted. And visitors came to sit.
The adjacent room housed more administration staff overseen by the full-time coordinator and part-time magazine editor along with the fax machine, electric kettle and fridge. Moods and significant outbursts were constantly broadcast through the open door between the rooms while the closed meetings that reasserted the hierarchy of the organization (emphatically not a collective) took place elsewhere – we would prowl tensely upstairs or break out into the inner courtyard to commiserate and smoke. Apart from the cat and the couple who lived upstairs until the mid-90s, we had the run of the place along with a 2-person security office down the corridor. The illusion of sole occupancy would occasionally be disrupted by film crews or wedding companies arriving with electric cables, catering vans, animals, actors and fake palm-trees – or by the ghost that spooked the security guard and made him throw up outside our door in fear.
Into this setting Rita brought an urbane, unpretentious, international breeze – the mature New Yorker expat-in-London-via-California who viewed this quintessentially British spectacle with a wary eye. For me, Rita’s table felt like the high table – it drew sophisticated callers and exchange. Her visitors came from around the world and it was quite a commitment for people to travel out to this 15thcentury Tudor palace in the middle of a park in southwest London. Undaunted, there were many Black artists, scholars and students who would make that trip to see Rita. I quickly understood how this feminist art library project thrived and produced new knowledge through the art of conversation and welcome in that front room, and most of this was achieved at Rita’s desk.
I had just moved to London and through the wonderful feminist art historian Nicole Veillard who introduced me to Rita, I was encouraged to volunteer at WASL. I was drawn by the WASL’s magazine and feminist mission to create a visual art resource which, by 1990 when I started, felt like a well-established organization fortified by charismatic personalities and at times daunting. But everyone knew Rita in a different way and beyond the WASL. We didn’t use the term ‘archivist’ to describe her work at WASL – she was the Black Women Artists Index Coordinator and she later re-named the project the Women of Colour Index, known as WOCI.
Our volunteers’ work flowed from the daily arrival of the post consisting of envelopes crammed with fragile press cuttings or slide files that needed to be unpacked and sorted for the process of filing under the chandelier of the Bishops Library. We revelled in the idea of a strident group of feminist artists taking over the Palace and making the bishops turn in their graves. Rita especially enjoyed transgressing not only British patriarchy, but also any notion of preciousness that characterized a white feminist reticence to confront the issue of race in cultural work. This was how my dedication to the WASL began: the magazine staff’s conversations were inscrutable for years, but through Rita I got it straightaway (maybe because she enjoyed a good song!). When I consider how my current work as a curator is dedicated to looking beyond the WAL collection’s material towards the community it speaks to, I realize how deeply influenced I was by Rita’s example.
I had no knowledge of Black and Asian artists in the UK and the only black women artists I knew of – apart from friends – were the Americans Faith Ringgold (who I’d seen speak in 1983 in Boston at the National Women’s Caucus for Art conference) and Elizabeth Catlett along with a vague awareness of historical sculptors like Edmonia Lewis. I appreciated how Rita’s terms of reference also included the States where her art education began – at one point being taught by Betye Saar – and she enabled me to conceive of the WASL as a player in an international field, beyond Europe and its presumed dominance in culture. She had confidence: where I would find myself retrieving papers from the magazine editor’s bin to create new files for the WASL artists folders, Rita reached out to invite participation in the building of the WOCI. I was archiving traces; she was community-building. She cast the WOCI net wide and gathered information on arts organizations, publishers and galleries, and organized press releases and articles to represent both contemporary and historical individuals. In the process she established files organized by country bringing the WASL collection into the critical shift recognizing non-Eurocentric artistic fields that led to projects like the International Institute of Visual Arts later. The WOCI however is distinguished by its focus on how these fields were specifically enriched by women.
Rita’s authority was grounded in her identity as an artist and a singular black woman artist in London connected to the 80s collective socio-political work artists undertook – especially evident in the legacy of the Brixton Art Gallery. Speaking a few years ago as a member of the Brixton Art Gallery Archive group, she described how her art education in the US and being taught by a black woman artist meant that she never questioned whether she should be an artist. Re-locating to Britain, where artists were mobilizing for social change and the younger black artists were challenging their absence from the artworld, expanded Rita’s practice into activism.
“The whole discussion about work and politics: your art practice was political, just to even pick up anything to create is a political act. And we didn’t question why we were doing it or why it was radical. You just did it.”1
The WOCI was established thanks to this ‘doing’ to create an artist-led directory of UK-based Black and Asian women artists. It complemented other national radical archive projects – like Panchayat and drew on a critical collaboration with Eddie Chambers and the African Asian Visual Artists Archive. Rita showed me that replicating material and creating a file for every individual in a group show was a strategic necessity to make that artist visible. I was very fortunate to find myself working alongside an artist who was bringing her experience of intersectional political work into the space of this feminist slide library and her presence gave the WASL project a vital connection with black politics and cultural achievement that provided some balance to the otherwise predominantly white feminist space. When Rita left in the 1990s, the Women’s Art Library did not engage with race politics in the arts in the same way until 2014 when the Gillian Elinor Project led by the artist research group X Marks the Spot began their creative discovery work in the WOCI. Other projects like the WOCI Reading Group and Present Futures’ Becoming an Archive exhibition demonstrate the lasting relevance of the WOCI.
For me, Rita was the artist who made The Red Dress, a stunning work I remember from an exhibition at Battersea Arts Centre before I relocated to London. It seemed quite a simple piece at the time, a gesture from the wardrobe sacrificing a celebratory dress to become an artwork. But the simplicity was genius, because the gesture has endured in my memory as a dancing contour. Since that crowded noisy art opening sprawled out on the echoey staircase at Battersea, the Red Dress has animated my understanding of what Rita taught me and today suggests what a life’s work looks like. She cohered the idea of a black history, the power of self-archiving, the notion of self-definition with picking something up and getting creative. She just did it! And I can tell you, for a fact, her work continues to do it for others today.
DR ALTHEA GREENAN is curator of Visual Arts collections in Special Collections and Archives at Goldsmiths University of London. She works with artists and academic researchers to realise new projects with the principal collection, the Women’s Art Library. She has written on the work of women artists since the 1980s and her doctoral research focused on the 35mm slide collection as a feminist political space. She has recently contributed to SALON FOR A SPECULATIVE FUTURE edited by Monika Oechsler, with Sharon Kivland and ANONYMOUS WAS A WOMAN edited by Jenna C. Ashton and the blog Lost and Found co-written with Dr Catherine Grant. https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-press/features/lost-and-found/