Interviews

Rethinking the Archive of Black Visual Culture with Deborah Willis

The photographer, curator, and academic founded the Center for Black Visual Culture at NYU to animate conversations about the archive of African American imagery from the 19th century to today.

Mr. SOUL! – a discussion about the first Black “tonight show” hosted by the late activist Ellis Haizlip. The conversation, sponsored by The Institute of African American Affairs + Center for Black Visual Culture, will be led by filmmakers Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard on December 13th. (all images courtesy NYU Center for Black Visual Culture)

Deborah Willis, a curator, photographer, and academic, has established herself as a leading scholar of photography and Black studies. Having authored the book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (among other prolific essays) and co-producing the documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a Peopleshe is known internationally as an expert and advocate of Black photographic history.

Willis recently took directorship of NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs, where she is also a professor in the Department of Photography & Imaging. In conjunction with her new position, and utilizing her extensive and expert knowledge, Willis founded a Center for Black Visual Culture, an unprecedented academic resource for visual politics, to fuse the two disciplines.

Deborah Willis and Manthia Diawara, the former Director of the NYU Institute of African American Affairs

Her goal is an interdisciplinary space “really considering the way that people are talking about how Black visual culture has framed their own history and their interests.” Willis says, “I want to create a forum for open discussion; I want us to think about how we create … I want everyday people to walk into NYU to contribute to a discussion about their experiences.”

Under the Center for Black Visual Culture, she is teaching the course “The Black Body and the Lens,” where graduate and undergraduate students consider the visual archive of African American history and reconsider historical aesthetics as a means of understanding contemporary culture and counteracting racial stereotypes. Willis herself researches cultural iconographies of gender and race woven throughout this archive to formulate new and creative understandings of modern society and its complicated narratives.

One of the most actionable impacts of the Center is its extensive programming, inviting speakers from across disciplines to engage in public conversations and performances surrounding visual politics and Black aesthetics. This, along with the exhibition cit.i.zen.ship: reflections on rights (curated by Deborah Willis and Lorie Novak), expands the scope of the Center to invite people from outside of NYU’s campus to engage in these conversations. Upcoming events are listed here.

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Jasmine Weber: What was your intention in founding the Center for Black Visual Cultural as a complement to the Institute of African American Affairs?

Deborah Willis: I thought it was really important to think about what’s going on today with the archive of images that focus on Black culture — which circulate from memes, to images that explore critical narratives of Black Lives Matter, to advertising images. I thought it would be a great opportunity to start placing the archive and history with contemporary stories. I wanted to explore this by finding new ways to talk about the archive of Black images. We are aware of the range of digital culture and how contemporary artists are incorporating stories from new media, such as television shows and live streaming shows, so, how are we talking about it?

The important thing for me is how we create a national discussion about images that are difficult to talk about, and images we are embracing. That’s why I wanted to look at contemporary photography, art photography, memes, as well as the history of photography within this framework.

JW: What is the significance of a Center for Black Visual Culture in an academic setting? What set the precedent for this sort of institute to develop?

DW: I think just the idea of: how do we talk nationally and internationally about the concept of the portrait? How do we think about the experience of memory, from 19th-century images to 21st-century images? We are using a university setting to explore images from the 19th century, looking from slavery to today. I thought having a Center to begin to collect images online, as well as having a place where students can research these stories, was necessary.

Aisha Conte, “Book.worm”

JW: How do these ideas expand outside the academic sphere to reach outside of NYU and enter the surrounding communities, nationally, and internationally?

DW: We have a “Future Image Makers” high school program. We invite students, and they are there making images. They use our equipment, they have critical discussions about what’s going on in the news and what’s going on in their communities, they take their cameras home, and they talk about life in the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and LES, and Harlem. Many of them are immigrants. They have the opportunity to not only write their own narratives but also make images about their experiences. That’s something to consider — why it’s important that we have this Center, but as people that teach in photo and imaging, we have this opportunity to collapse these two experiences.

In an exhibition that Lorie Novak and I curated, called cit.i.zen.ship: reflections on rights, we have over 35 high school students who are between the ages of 13 and 17 in the exhibition. I’m amazed by their experiences. One young woman [Aisha Conte] made a photograph of herself wearing a headwrap but also with all of the books she’s reading — from contemporary African writers, to contemporary writers here in America, to James Baldwin. When asked, “Is this because in your culture you carry things on your head?” she says: “Not only on our heads, but also in my mind.” I thought to have a creative photograph like that — to think about what’s on her mind — that was just amazing.

She talks very freely and openly about why it was important for her to take a photography class; even if she might not major in photography, she understands representation. Even though some of the members of her family can’t vote, she wants to talk about politics so she can inform people who can vote, to understand her plight and her experiences so they can vote in a conscious way about rights and immigration. That’s why I think this is important, and why the Center and the Department of Photography and Imaging work together, because of these projected narratives and implied narratives about Black people.

JW: Earlier, you mentioned looking at memes as valid stakeholders in the visual archive. With memes becoming a form of artistic and cultural production, which often go under-recognized as such, how is the Center planning to engage with this rapidly-consumable form of culture, to expand our modern notions of Black visual culture and what it can be?

DW: What I hope is to have more conversations. I want to create a forum for scholars, writers, and pop culture activists to unpack these visual stories and how memes are used by both Black and white, and people from other cultures, who are looking at the culture of Black people to consider these “moments of performance” through the digital. Having the opportunity to talk about them, but also having the opportunity to have a conference or have workshops and panels to talk about representation and to investigate the meaning today — we know through music, we know through how images are re-appropriated and used in history. Artists can retell the story and think about the implications of the visibility of Black people, and the notion of hyper-visibility, so these are the moments I’d love to explore, not only through panel discussions but also through performance, like dance and other ways to create discussions.

JW: It feels like the social media boom has allowed for this stage to be set, where Black cultural production is at the forefront of the media and culture we consume. This has always been the case, but we now have a more amplified and readily-available source.  I’m interested to hear if that is in any way a struggle for the Center, or if it works in your favor. It, of course, can straddle a tricky line when Black culture seems like it’s ready for anyone to grab at.

DW: I totally agree. You pointed out that hard negotiation — it is not only a tricky line, it’s a slippery line, in terms of how we begin to consider this. We are interested in people who are critical thinkers to look at the Black body, to look at the internet and aspects of looking at Black culture, but then we have people who can use this against the experience of writing new writings without being informed of the history of negative images — just as with the history of Blackface. As we heard recently, it’s okay for Meagan Kelly to say that, she felt it was okay, but she doesn’t know the history or the effects of Blackface on Black culture, or what happened in the 19th century. And Bert Williams — in terms of, if you want to play the role, you have to know the experiences of Black people. But just to have Black people as the object of ridicule is not okay. And how do we talk about it? We talk about it through contemporary culture, we reflect upon it through the classroom and literature, and that’s why it’s important to have the center and these classrooms and space for critical engagement.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

cit.i.zen.ship: reflections on rights continues through January 18, 2019, at the Department of Photography & Imaging Galleries, NYU Tisch School of the Arts (721 Broadway Lobby & 8th floor). The exhibition was curated by Deborah Willis and Lorie Novak.

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