Tosin Adeosun On Rita Keegan at South London Gallery

As part of a series of commissions by BLACK LENS for the South London Gallery’s Convergence programme, I took over the gallery’s Instagram platform from 17-18 November 2020, sharing my research into Rita Keegan’s archive.  BLACK LENS is an alliance of young Black writers, art historians and curators assembling around Black research, scholarship and cultural production. Convergence is an ongoing series of critical conversations, screenings and written commissions, facilitated by the SLG and curated and hosted by invited guests.

For this research into Keegan’s archive, I collaborated with Olamiju Fajemisin, a London-based critic, student and art worker whose newly commissioned text, ‘Generating Space(s)’, now online on the South London Gallery website, considers the nature of archives and archival praxis, and the ways collected images and paraphernalia can affect one another, and in turn, affect us.

As a curator and visual art researcher interested in activating archives of Black art, looking into Rita Keegan and SLG’s archive presented a fresh perspective of aspects of Keegan’s life, artistic practice and her local community in South London during the pivotal UK Black Arts Movement.  Undertaking this research project provided a lens to look at intersections of race, gender and family history through Keegan’s archive. 

I split our findings into themes, making sure to continuously contextualise them in relation to Olamiju’s ‘Generating Space(s)’ text. The findings presented me with three main themes to explore through Keegan’s archive. The first theme explored autobiography, self-reference and body politics, the second focused on diaspora and how Rita Keegan’s works highlight the different Black communities and the third explored the fabric of archives. 

The first post was on the theme of autobiography, self-reference and body politics where I explored how Keegan used self-portraits as an outlet to take control of how she would be seen, creating a collection of works truthfully representative of herself during different stages in her personal and professional lives. By archiving her autobiography and creating allusions to herself like those seen in the images shared, Rita Keegan has created a repository in art history, not only for her sake but for all Black women. When asked why she created these evolving self-portraits, Keegan explained that self-portraits were a ‘natural way to create a frame of reference.’ That ‘she could do whatever she wanted with [her] face, and create non-derogatory images of Black women’.

Image of Rita Keegan in the studio with her self-portrait, Small mansions, Gunnersbury Park, 1993

The second post was on the theme of  diaspora and how Keegan’s works highlight the different Black communities she was a part of. Keegan’s works connected her with an array of visual artists. Through Keegan curating the ‘Mirror Reflecting Darkly’ exhibition in 1985, she sought to  reflect the diversity of the artistic practices of Black women artists in London, and to challenge the expectations of such artists as perpetuated by stereotype.  The exhibition united Black women artists across the diaspora, bringing their art to a commonplace location in Brixton, south London. Keegan’s archive of the project has since become a site for critical memory and nostalgia.

Poster for the Mirror Reflecting Darkly exhibition, 1984. Courtesy Rita Keegan

The final post explored the fabric of archives through Rita Keegan’s artistic career, archive and family history. As Keegan is interested in conveying identity through dressing the body in different ways, she explores the ordinary and the extraordinary qualities of fabrics in an excavation of photographs from her family collections, which date back to c.1880. Keegan transforms material objects to objects of memory by photographing them and thus making them accessible beyond her home and personal archive.

Brixton Art Gallery Soweto Quilt Makers, 1986. Courtesy: Rita Keegan with support from the Rita Keegan Archive Project