Digital Archives as a Black Interior
Archives are witnesses of the past.1
They are testaments of existence and occupancy. Whether physically preserved or digitized, archives offer a unique space where past clarifies present. They are sites of both education and leisure—where some search for historical value, others find pleasure in unintentional browsing, clicking on whatever speaks to them. Author, professor, and theorist Elizabeth Alexander defines “the black interior” as a space in which “black artists have found selves that go far, far beyond the limited expectations and definitions of what black is, isn’t or should be.”2 Engaging with this “black imaginary,” as she also calls it, is a form of liberation that allows Black people to envision and embody Black power and Black beauty. Though it can be defined as metaphysical, the similarly transformative and empowering experience one can have while browsing the Studio Museum’s digital archives renders it a Black interior too. Engaging with this space simultaneously commemorates Black achievement and provides safety for the Black mind to access artistic liberation.
The Studio Museum’s digital archive consists of a range of categories, each filled with photographs, video clips, and brochures dating back to the 1960s. Though the Museum’s inaugural moments can be understood through passed-down stories and personal anecdotes, the physical documents and images provide an immersive experience. One can track the physical expansion of the Museum, the creative development of artists like Simone Leigh and Kerry James Marshall, or simply scroll through with no agenda. In these archives, history is accessible and undeniable. Digitization breaks the historical limitation of Black expression existing only in certain places or at certain times. Engaging with the archives reminds us of Studio Museum’s foundation—that it was conceived as an evolving place with a persistent passion for Black art.
The Artist-in-Residence archive is especially engaging due to the annual Artist-In-Residence exhibition brochures. The Artist-in-Residence program began in 1969 and has since annually supported artists across the diaspora. The archives ensure each artist's existence and occupancy are remembered. This is a luxury that defies any notion of historical silencing, and firmly implants endurance instead. Starting in 1970, each Artist-in-Residence exhibition was accompanied by a printed brochure. These brochures serve as primary sources that describe the exhibitions as they happened, without commentary or critique. By virtue of this, the archives become valuable entities.
Detail from the brochure for From the Studio: Artists-in-Residence, 1985-1986, 1986
FROM THE STUDIO: is the title of the 1985–86 Artist-In-Residence exhibition, which featured artists Nadine DeLawrence-Maine and Kerry James Marshall.3 The six-page brochure for this exhibition details the education, grants and awards, and previous exhibitions of each artist. A one-sentence quote about their work also frames an image of the two young artists on the second page. The title page is designed with the words “Artists in Residence 1985-1986," in all caps, spaced out across the page. This first page also includes an image of Nadine DeLawrence-Maine's sculpture DESCENSION (1986), though the black-and-white image flattens the sculpture and renders it more like a painting. The brochure is simple, similar to its factual title, From the Studio. The work in this exhibition was truly made in the studio. The title of this exhibition, then, also represents the core intent behind the Artist-in-Residence program: to provide a studio with physical resources, and that is a safe space for the artists' minds to create.
Though most of this brochure is filled with small text detailing the Artist-in-Residence program history and the artists' individual achievements, its true magic lies in its existence. Their residencies will never be forgotten, but this brochure is the only physical marker of the 1986 exhibition. We are reliant upon this printed record to remind us of and document what was. This brochure provides proof that Studio Museum successfully nurtured two emerging artists, one of whom is now a household name: Kerry James Marshall. It was during his residency that Marshall moved away from abstraction and towards figuration. This is evident in his painting Silence is Golden (1986) on page five of the brochure. The painting, a close-cropped image of a grinning face, forces the viewer to reckon with Blackness. The viewer must confront the subject and thus the painting opens the door for the inclusion of Black figures in art history.4 This brochure evinces a critical shift in Marshall’s career that was granted proper exploration via his residency.
The brochure’s final page depicts a brief overview of the Artist-in-Residence program. Although the foundation of the program has never changed, there are subtle differences in the language used to describe the program then and now. In 1986, the Artist-in-Residence program was described as addressing the needs of “minority artists,” the program was “for a period of nine to twelve months,” the artists were selected “nationwide,” and it states that at the end of the tenure “an exhibition of his or her work is installed.” Over the years, the word choice and realities of these statements have changed. Today the Artist-in-Residence program is described as serving artists of “African and Afro-Latinx descent,” the program is “eleven months,”, the artists selected are “local, national, or international,” “working in any media,” and at the end of their tenure “a culminating exhibition features the work of the artists in residence.” These changes show both expansion and specificity. Since its founding, Studio Museum’s Artist-in-Residence program has grown into an internationally recognized force, in no small part due to the changes it has undergone. Entering the digital archives grants access to the development of the artists in residence and development of the Museum itself. This is a perfect example of Alexander’s “black imaginary”, that unique space of complete liberation of the Black mind, because there is no limitation on the user or how they engage with the vastness of the archives.
The eight-page Artist-in-Residence exhibition brochure from 1979 features artists Noah Jemison, David Hammons, AJ Smith, and Ranu Harding. The digitized version is black-and-white. In addition to the artists’ names, the first page includes the exhibition’s dates, “July 1 – Sept. 23,” and a small photo of the Museum’s first location at 2033 Fifth Avenue.5 The text and image are placed in the center of the page, leaving a lot of negative space between them and a thin, black, rectangular border. Including the Museum’s physical presence is notable, a proud ownership of space. Studio Museum’s new building on West 125th and Malcolm X Boulevard, expected to open in 2024, is immense and exhilarating, but its roots lie firmly in that 2033 Fifth Avenue location. The loft was rented for eleven years, until the end of 1979, when the Museum moved to its 144 West 125th location. The photo included on the 1979 brochure was the last year the loft space was used. This brochure is a reminder of Studio’s origins and allows for an appreciation of its growth.
The second page of the brochure shares a brief history of the Artist-in-Residence program and also details the planning behind the 1979 exhibition. The page specifies that the artwork in this exhibition was “installed by the artists themselves.” This decision is not common today. For recent exhibitions, an entire team of assistants, curators, photographers, and many others are involved. During the 70s, the legal and operational documents required for an exhibition were printed and distributed in person. These printed materials now reside in the physical and digital archives, and are a reminder of how much work goes into putting on a show. Today we don’t have access to an exhibit’s preparation, as much of it is done behind the scenes, in emails and texts that the general public can’t see. The artists were also asked to assist in designing posters for the exhibitions. Though once a space where the artists were also responsible for the curation and installation of their work, the Artist-in-Residence exhibitions are now full-scale productions that require months of preparation by a gallery or museum staff members. Placing the preparation of an exhibition in the artists’ hands was a testament to Studio’s commitment to giving artists agency. The process today demonstrates how far the program has come in logistical support and scale.
The remainder of this brochure includes a headshot and short biography of each artist, their artistic achievements, and one example of each artist's work. A photo of Aj Smith’s CORRIDORS (1979) is on the fifth page, for example. The black-and-white etching features a chaotic corridor filled with things like misplaced chairs and a cello case. Its imitation is stark, raw, and familiar, all testaments to Smith’s artistic ability. No backstory or detailed analysis accompanies the work, just its title, medium, date, and size. Its release symbolizes a drafted version of Smith’s current portrait drawings that are praised for their accuracy. A modern eye may view this brochure as simple or uninformative, but how incredible to gain access to the beginning works of Aj Smith, and even David Hammons, a now internationally acclaimed artist, and his piece Memorial (1979) on page five. Without such preservation, the Studio Museum and its artists could be seen as stagnant or effortlessly successful, and erase the development and documentation of effort and change the archives prove. The preservation of these materials preserves Black voices. Their digitization then makes them accessible for current and future scholarship.
Engaging with these brochures, and the rest of the archives, underscores the importance of digital spaces. In 1986, Nadine DeLawrence-Maine described her work as “an exploration into the multiplicity of dimensions of self.”6i. The digital archives, without time or physical constraints, allow the user to do the same. In this particular “black interior,” Black minds can freely be, as well as find and/or deepen authentic, creative, and nonrestricted selves.
1) "Why Archiving?" International Council on Archives. ica.org/en/why-archiving#:~:text=Archives%20are%20witnesses%20to%20the,past%20actions%20and%20current%20decisions.
2) Elizabeth Alexander, “Toward the Black Interior,” The Black Interior (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004).
3) From The Studio: Artists in Residence 1985-1986, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, New York, 1986.
4) Kerry James Marshall, Silence is Golden, 1986. The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of the artist, studiomuseum.org/collection-item/silence-golden
5) Studio Museum Artists: 1979, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem, New York, 1979.
6) From The Studio: Artists in Residence 1985-1986, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, New York, 1986.