Some thoughts on narrative + archive

One of the aspects of library school I appreciate the most are the discussions. Returning to school has allowed me to posit aspects of life and work I find incredibly important. One such discussion was on repatriation of archival materials. Since that classroom conversation I have gained additional perspective on the topic through the work of the following artists. Some might find my turning to art perplexing, but for me understanding history and culture requires a consideration of art, artists, and art making.

Steffani Jemison’s work spans many different mediums. It was through reading her April 2019 article in Artforum, “Drafts: Steffani Jemison on the stroke, the glyph, and the mark” that I have come to some new considerations. In the article, Jemison begins, ““I have made a mark, and I do not know whether I am drawing or writing. I am thinking about marks and how they collect on the surface. I have accumulated marks, and I believe that this accumulation is at once a drawing, a text, and an archive.” The artist clarifies that this mark making, this place that is possibly both drawing and writing is action. The artist, mark maker and drawer, is not a neutral figure. The one composing an archive is also not neutral in this same sense.

Jemison continues and relays how this drawing is pulling upon the history of language, of text and survival of disenfranchised, and often enslaved people. As my colleague at Auraria Library, Stevie Gunter articulated: this is “drawing as a means of escape.” A specific and incredibly poignant example Jemison uses is the story Ellen Butler, a woman born enslaved in Louisiana. In the example Butler tells about the way the slaveholders would mark the doorway by writing with a stick—this is why “we larn to write.” The specific story stands out to me because of the notion of threshold; I’ll return to this.

Since reading this article what I’ve become interested in is the ways archive is always already being created, drawn, intuited, performed and how that bumps against the notion of archive as something held within specific, often academic, spaces.

Zack and Adam Khalil are Ojibway brothers. Their documentary film, Inaate/Se is grounded by some key figures, including the curator of a local history museum. The brothers tell of their relation to an important local, historical figure. The curator then tells them about aspects they should know about their family member. The brothers stay rather mum. We, the viewer, never see the brothers. As the film continues, multiple shots occur inside of a museum, white and pristine, where cultural heritage artifacts are held in literal cages. The mood is ominous for much of the film. This notion that identity, that heritage is kept captive continues as a theme. Of course, there is a counternarrative. A medicine man reveals the ways that tradition is still alive. The very film plays homage to the notion that younger generation’s investment in challenging the status quo. How is this their inheritance?

What both artists have made me reflect on narratology. In what ways narrative is or isn’t considered in institutional archives. As more and more archivists consider a need to diversify their collections, how many are going beyond the responsibility of just acquiring, and instead are thinking about the specific narratives—the types of stories that need to be told—with those materials?

I think of Gloria Anzaldúa writing about what she called Conocimiento; a theory of how identity is constructed. The following is from the book Interviews=Entrevistas

How do we know? How do we perceive? How do we make meaning? Who produces knowledge and who is kept from producing it? Who distributes and passes it on? Who has access to it and who doesn’t? Is there such a thing as counterknowledge, and if so who constructs it and how? My symbol is a serpent in the Garden of Eden or Tamansuchan, the one with an orange or apple in her mouth. This image represents the unaccepted, illegitimate knowledges and ways of knowing used by those outside the inner circle of dominant way. I use the idea of outlawed knowledge to encourage Chicanas and other women and people of color to produce our own forms, to originate our own theories for how the world works. I think of those who produce new conocimientos have to shift the frame of reference, reframe the issue or situation being looked at, connect the disparate parts of information in new ways or from a perspective that’s new.

At the end of the day an archive can play a specific role in the formation of identity; there should be no question of that. But the colonialist narratives that dominate collections uphold a threshold and do not take into consideration the complex notion of counternarratives, or even different narrative styles. Like the writing on the slaveholder’s doorstep, in many ways people in archival institutions are upholding notions of threshold; which is where the classroom discussion I mentioned earlier ended up. There are endless ways that people have dealt, have thrived through disenfranchisement. This process is an inherent part of these types of archival collections.

The fact of the matter is that those deprived of access have always, are always circumnavigating the institutions ruled by a narrative of colonization. Any archive that seeks to diversify their collection must understand that obtaining objects is not enough. By simply acquiring items for “safekeeping” and not respecting the multifaceted needs for narrative expression related to those items there are multiple dangers, including the fact that the archivist may be obstructing the formation of identity—which prolongs trauma.

The following articles were suggested to me and are worth a read:

Love and Lubrication in the Archives, or rukus!: A Black Queer Archive for the United Kingdom by Ajamu X. Topher Campbell and Mary Stevens


We Already Are by Yusef Omowale

Thank you to my colleagues at Auraria Library, specifically Stevie Gunter and Renee Bedard, for engaging in significant discussions on this topic and for suggesting the above articles.

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