Editor’s Note: With the support of the Emily H. Tremaine Foundation, Hyperallergic published a commissioning series expanding upon the research and reporting by its Journalism Fellow for Curators, Rea McNamara. Designed to demystify the curatorial field, the series looked at the myriad of ways digital feminisms can inform better online curatorial practices. In this final contribution, archivists Dominique Z. Barron and Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski co-curate this exclusive “digital remix” of their Rita Keegan Archive (Project) exhibition, exploring what Black feminist archival care looks like, especially outside the institution.
* * *
Everyone wants to touch the thing.
Doesn’t everyone want to touch the things?
These are Black things.
Or are these things black?”
Rita Keegan, a Bronx-born artist of Caribbean and Black-Canadian descent, has played a pivotal role in the London arts scene since the 1980s.
A feminist change-maker in the British Black Arts Movement who was also a Soho clubland fixture, Keegan is best known for establishing the Women Artists of Colour Index (WOCI). This ground-breaking initiative, founded in 1985 and currently housed at the Women’s Art Library, documented and archived Black and Asian women artists; it’s a unique collection of slides and papers that provides a vital historical resource for contemporary discussions of race and gender. Within her extensive archive, materials drawn from Keegan’s artistic and archival practices contain pivotal historical records. She was a co-founding member of the Brixton Artists Collective and ran the Brixton Art Gallery, which was set up in 1983; curating Mirror Reflecting Darkly, the first exhibition by the Black Women Artists collective. She has exhibited at the Horniman Museum (2006); Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts); the British Museum (1995); the ICA, London (1993); and, in the United States, at the Studio Museum, Harlem and Bronx Museum of the Arts (1997).
From February 2020 to January 2021, the South London Gallery hosted an exhibition of archival materials from Rita’s collection. Despite limited access to the gallery due to the global pandemic, over 13,000 visitors experienced the exhibition over a period of a year. Titled The Rita Keegan Archive (Project), the display, in the SLG’s Archive Room, co-curated by Rita Keegan, Dominique Z. Barron, Lauren Craig, and Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, featured Keegan’s personal papers, U-matic tapes, pamphlets, and other materials. Rita Keegan’s practice reflected the intersection of new media experimentation, feminist practice, and the British Black Arts Movement. The exhibition offered a rare opportunity to see a range of materials and ephemera from this important historical movement. The material was organized into themes: “books and publications”; “exhibitions — group and solo shows”; “Black Women’s artists and collectives/feminisms”; and “artists friends/networks/community.”
Here, we offer a digital remixing of The Rita Keegan Archive (Project) exhibition. We have re-selected and re-presented Keegan’s archive through a multimedia lens, presenting a patchwork of her life through collective curation. This is grounded in Black feminist archival care work, operating independently and outside of the institutional confines. We see the archive as one tool through which to make the past present — a tool that enables us to disrupt the hierarchies that determine how our knowledge is formed through time and varied contexts.
Moving beyond constraints when we try to, as our co-curator Lauren Craig describes, collaboratively curate the archive of a living artist into one vitrine (59 x 19.7 x 37.8 inches), a digital landscape affords us a space vast and expansive, yet contained — a digital vitrine? We embrace the position of critic, editor, and curator Olamiju Fajemisin, who advocates for the proactive use of an archive; central to this process is the critical role that curation plays.
The material is reconstituted using archival visual vignettes, to recreate the spark of intimacy we experienced when we began to dig deeper into Keegan’s archive. The archival visual vignettes were born out of our conversations and engagement of the material. We wanted to recreate and/or translate our own experience of selecting and curating for this piece, so we chose to film this intimate process and present here as stop-motion animated GIFs. Through these archival visual vignettes, we attempt to replicate the experience of a researcher when in an archival reading room by creating a virtual reading room to engage more closely the text, colors, and textures of the materials.
We see the physical exhibition at South London Gallery and the digital remix presented for Hyperallergic as an intentional way to put into practice Black British feminist archiving. As Burin and Sowinski (2014) describe:
[This practice] has been about recognizing, capturing, making visible and preserving what is important for us to collectively remember … We realize the importance of noting that remembering and preserving has been a process, and in that process spaces have been created, relationships have developed and our visibility increased
Keegan’s archive spreads beyond the materiality of the physical collection; it signals towards a vast untapped reserve of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, memories, personal and artistic networks, spaces and places. This practice of remixing and digitizing archival materials is one way to re-engage and reinterpret, which presents new opportunities to grasp historical contexts, and through this we can better understand presents and futures. It is a way for us to learn from, with, and through the knowledge and legacies of those that engaged in Black memory work before us, while still building upon that knowledge with our own contextual renderings. The digital archive thus serves as an intergenerational exchange that exists beyond physical time/space constraints and opens up an entirely new continuum of possibilities and opportunities to sustain Black memory and life. We see Keegan’s archive (and, subsequently, the Rita Keegan Archive Project) as one example or case study of how to do collaborative curation and digital archiving as Black feminist archival practice.
* * *
Archival Digital Exhibit
Rita Keegan Archive (Project) Remixed
Series I: Group Exhibition UK/US
1. Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966 – 1996, 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 (1998) exhibition pamphlet
2. Passion: Black Women’s Creativity of the African Diaspora, the Elbow Room Gallery curated by Maud Sulter (1989), exhibition poster, press release, private view invitation
Series II: Artistic Community Organizations/Initiatives
1. Visible Women: The Circle, Copy Art, collective zine (no date)
2. SOWETO The patchwork of our lives, Brixton Art Gallery, curated by Brixton Art Collective (1986) exhibition catalogue, including screen printed fabric of the Zamani Soweto Sisters, with image of Ellen Kuzwayo
Series III: Artistic Friendships and Networks
1. Correspondence seasonal card and envelope addressed to African and Asian Visual Artists Archive (AAVAA)/Rita Keegan from the artist Donald Rodney (1992)
2. Let The Eat Cake, Rita Keegan by Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1988)
Rita Keegan has a forthcoming solo exhibition at the South London Gallery and an accompanying publication titled Mirror Reflecting Darkly: The Rita Keegan Archive in fall 2021. The Rita Keegan Archive Project is funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, UK.