The Black archive is a space where the past and the present meet to point the way to a new and radical imagining of the future. The lure of the archive – which led Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s to document her people’s history and folktales in Mules and Men and inspired Alice Walker to excavate Zora Neale Hurston’s work for the literary canon and later write “In Our Mother’s Gardens,” an essay to lament the tender aches of Black women artists who are lost to the archive – drew me to the Women of Visions archive and the University Art Gallery in my Humanities Engage Summer Immersive Fellowship.
Throughout 2021, Women of Visions (WOV), a Pittsburgh-based arts collective of Black women artists, has been celebrating 40 years of history-making collaboration, exhibition, and artistic “good trouble.” During the summer of 2021, I had the pleasure of working with Sylvia Rhor (Director of Pitt’s University Art Gallery), Alex Taylor (Asst. Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Pitt), and Janet McCall (former Executive Director of the Society of Contemporary Craft) to pull into fruition an archival exhibition publication that documents the history of Women of Visions and features the collective’s current artists and their works. This immersive fellowship was a natural segue from work I had done for my previous immersive fellowship with the Carnegie Museum of Art. Both immersive experiences have given me an opportunity to use the skills I’ve gained from graduate study in a more community-focused and public facing way.
The archive of Women of Visions is a living one, and it is explicitly attached to a community of Black women that are still producing and working within Pittsburgh and beyond. Working with the artists of Women of Visions was a revelatory experience because I was able to speak to them about their own history, hear stories of the artists as young women in Pittsburgh, and seek guidance about my own art practice. This experience has fundamentally changed how I understand the role of archives within historically silenced communities. Within the archives of Women of Visions are the blueprints for a new future for Black women artists. The defiance and passion found within the pages of the exhibition publication speak to both the historical erasure Black women artists have faced as well as their commitment to creating a new reality wherein they will not be hemmed in to the exclusive structures of the art world.
I am currently a 6th-year doctoral student in the English department working on a dissertation that is grounded in the archives of W.E.B Du Bois and Octavia Butler. My work with Women of Visions has inspired new approaches to my dissertation research by revealing sites of inquiry I had not previously considered. My chapter entitled, “‘All Art is Propaganda’: W.E.B Du Bois and the Visual Culture of Black Girlhood Within The Brownies’ Book,” previously used W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Brownies’ Book” to consider the changing face of Black girlhood within the twentieth century. However, this chapter will now include works from Black women artists of the early twentieth century. In addition, this chapter will have an afro-futurist “coda” that will explore the work of Wangechi Mutu and Bisa Butler to further investigate the changing face of Black girlhood and womanhood throughout the twentieth century.
My immersive fellowship experience has also shifted my relationship to post-graduate work. Working on the exhibition publication, diving through the Women of Visions archive, and exploring the role of art institutions in the presentation and curation of history have left an indelible mark. A consistent point of angst in my last years in the program has been how disconnected my work feels from the communities that it highlights. By working on a directly community-focused project, I felt the presence of the community of artists and my responsibility to them constantly. This connection concretized the importance of my work with archives. My dissertation focuses on how Du Bois’s construction of Black futurity hindered Black women and girls as much as it freed them. Through my work with Women of Visions, I was reminded that the story of the past is more diverse than I had previously conceived, and the insights I gained here pushed me to explore how Black women artists (not just writers) were reimagining themselves outside of W.E.B Du Bois’ ideas about futurity. I am determined to continue this work after I graduate, and through this immersive experience, I have been inspired and encouraged to pursue a career within the cultural and arts sector.