Enter an Immersive Environment Crafted out of Black History
Kameelah Janan Rasheed has been collecting found objects since she was 12 years old.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Source Material for a Poem I've Been Trying to Write about Casual Superlatives, National Progress and Palate Cleansers. Images courtesy the artist
When artist and archivist Kameelah Janan Rasheed was 12 years old, she started incessantly collecting fragments of bark, letters, and other objects as what she remembers as, “a material acknowledgment of my existence.” Rasheed says, “At 12 years old when you are homeless and you lose everything, I thought, ‘Oh, how would people know I existed? How would people know that my family existed?’” As Rasheed grew older, she continued to collect objects that expanded beyond her personal history to include materials that recorded black history. Rasheed’s lifelong compulsion for collecting bits of history is now on display in a group show, Catalyst, at the Queens Museum. The cacophonous combination of collaged posters, projected slides, and neatly pinned walls of newspaper clippings, photographs, lines from poems and singular words form a world out of the found objects and recorded ideas that say as much about the past as it does the future.
“All my work starts with research,” Rasheed explains to the Creators Project. “For all of my work I am really thinking about blackness in terms of literacy and legibility, so I work with archived materials of things that I hear, see, and collect to create some type of narrative.”
She explains, “In the works at Queens Museum I was really interested in thinking about ideas of progress and progression. I was really interested in bringing together pieces of things that could gesture towards the messier parts of history. I want to figure out what that mess really means."
In the immersive environment, a collage of collected histories entitled, Source Material for a Poem I've Been Trying to Write about Casual Superlatives, National Progress and Palate Cleansers, the artist singles out words like “Negro” and writes the word “Black” in bold lettering with varying punctuation: BLACK: BLACK. BLACK! BLACK & BLACK? The effect being that the feeling and connotation of the word changes as the viewer reads it over. There are images of Rasheed’s family and of families she do not know woven into the collaged imagery that seems to both tell the artist’s personal history while capturing broader moments in the larger black American experience.
In the exhibition, there are a series of black-and-white posters that also challenge historically held Americanisms. One, for example, reads, “Purchase the proper boots with which to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Another reads: “Take it like a man but don’t take it up with the man.” The cheeky claims are the artist’s way of calling attention to how the history of black protest against white racial violence has often been seen as impolite. A projected slide work flashes images of small black kids—filled with the potential of youth— as phrases like “flaccid futures” appear above the faces of these children. The word “flaccid” foreshadows, as it looms large in white light, undesired possibility. The scene questions what became of those kids, and, more importantly to the artist’s point, were their stories recorded?
“In my work, I am trying to say that as a nation we have collectively chosen historical narratives that are clean and safe and don’t encourage deep inquiry, confrontation, and accountability,” explains Rasheed. “The archival practices that black families have—whether that’s hiding things under their beds, putting things in plastic bags, or putting things in between their mattresses—are very important as a way to assert a narrative that counters the existing institutional narrative that we don’t always have the power to shift.”
Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s work is currently on view in the exhibition Catalyst, at the Queens Museum, through March 13. For more information, click here.