Creating artwork is a deeply personal endeavor for many artists—an expression of an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and creative impulses. When artists engage an archive—whether physical, documented, or derived from personal memories or historical and collective traumas—they are delving deeply into their past and present with immense vulnerability. The display of Cheryl Harper and rod jones ii’s installation-based and sculptural works in InLiquid’s exhibition, What Are We Claiming? demonstrates how artists engage archives in complex ways.
While Harper and jones draw from different kinds of sources—one tangible and the other ephemeral or spiritual—their aesthetic choices offer compelling ways to understand and to question these archival approaches. Viewers may not initially notice aesthetic similarities between each artist’s works. However, allusions to the body and the use of historically unconventional materials are present in both installations.
jones’ amorphous papier-mache sculptures made from brown paper resemble varying skin colors of Black bodies. The mural’s layered curvilinear shapes of different grey tones mimic the shape of the sculptures, and appear almost as cast-shadows. Harper’s three garments and their shrine-like floor components include historical family relics worn and owned by either her relatives or those of her husband. Additionally, one recurring image in Harper’s hand-printed wallpaper installation is that of runaway slaves; the images of the slaves are informed by actual historical advertisements placed by her husband’s southern slave-owning family from 1734 – 1850.
The gallery is divided roughly into two sections with each artist’s works installed side-by-side. Upon entering the space, viewers encounter a wall of gridded windows; this area leads down and around the far-left corner of the gallery, and becomes the surface on which jones paints his site-specific mural. In his mural, the ghost-like figural shadows are darkest in the foreground, then become grey, and continue to recede into the white background with fainter suggestions of figures.
The mural appears ominous and uncertain as it is absent of a clear narrative or linearity. This work aligns with jones’ use of an archive as a tool to pose more questions than answers. As a Black Queer American artist, jones is confronted with trans-generational trauma without even knowing the specifics of his ancestry. [i] There is a darkness to jones’ section, both literally and figuratively—the sculptures appear as bodies contorted, restricted, or possibly harmed. Yet jones also adorns many of his papier-mache sculptures with beads, a mixed-media doll, or other material assemblages. Several sculptures are suspended by the colorful beading as though the weight of these symbolically Black bodies is uplifted and made resilient by a material that bears significant meaning for the artist. jones recalled that growing up he would see young girls and boys with beads in their hair, and so the colorful beads become a material that is nostalgic for the artist.
In many ways, jones’ works function as a “living archive” in that he expresses elements of himself and his childhood while also hovering in a liminal historical space. The work raises certain questions like, does an archive have to be linear? And, does an archive with tangible relics and documentation offer closure or resolution? In many ways, his mural and sculptures illustrate his preference for working through past and present with an undefined path rather than relying on definitive historical traces or tangible objects. His process becomes largely meditative and reflective.
In contrast to jones’ pieces, Harper’s works incorporate bright colors and are more historically legible, making visual references to items, places, and people that are a part of her ancestry and her husband’s. Harper, a descendent of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, experienced a trans-generational trauma knowing that members of her family had died in the Holocaust. Harper explained that her mother had a life-long sadness that permeated through the family yet Harper did not know much about what happened to her family members. Harper’s great-grandfather was meant to flee with his sisters to the United States but instead he arrived without them. Two of Harper’s great aunts died in concentration camps. Incorporated into the wallpaper is a woodblock print illustrating these sisters who were Harper’s great-aunts. Rendered in black and white, these two sisters stand behind a symbolic barbed wire.
Other images in the wallpaper incorporate family photographs or depictions of heirlooms from her family like candlesticks used for lighting the Sabbath. The stylized animal figures seen in the wallpaper have been a common inclusion in her work for years. It was only recently that Harper realized that her great-great uncle had created an artwork that shared immense stylistic similarities in depicting animals. Harper’s great-great uncle created a mizrah—a work of art that held religious context as they were typically displayed in a room in the direction of Jerusalem.
Other elements in Harper’s wallpaper are references to her husband’s wealthy French Huguenot ancestors who arrived in South Carolina, owned a plantation, and used enslaved labor. The images of the runaway slave advertisements as well as brightly colored sections depicting cash crops like indigo and rice directly reference this history. Harper and her husband confronted this past when they had to unpack and clean relics and remnants stored away for years. Silver and brass heirlooms can be found represented in the wallpaper and surrounding the adorned wedding dresses and other familial garments.
While Harper uses physical materials from the past, she also creates a “living archive,” but does so in different ways than jones’ installation. She collides past and present, but she also merges two distinct familial histories—one inflicting trauma on enslaved Africans—and the other suffering tremendous loss at the hands of Nazis. Using the very objects that belonged to these ancestors, depicting portraits based on family photographs, and re-creating imagery of enslaved individuals provides a more concrete reminder of their individualism.
This thought-proving exhibition illustrates two ways that artists grapple with and process the past. The proximity of their work together in one space in and of itself may prompt viewers to question these approaches. Harper has noted that when her installation was on display at another institution, visitors could be heard commenting on the objects, recalling how they also had some of these specific pieces in their families’ collections.[ii] Harper’s installation, though complex and engaging several historical topics, allows visitors a greater accessibility in making connections based on tangible objects and images. jones’ works may become more challenging for viewers to immediately understand. However, that active process of looking, thinking, and questioning may offer visitors greater room to reflect and interpret the artwork. jones and Harper’s works become a part of a “living archive” through this exhibition as these objects are displayed, photographed, and the subject of this essay. Furthermore, viewers’ responses to the exhibition become a part of that history—perhaps they will write about, photograph, or share stories related to the exhibition with others. In this way, it becomes clear that no historical event or biography is ever completely concrete or tangible, but a result of the lived experiences of many—past, present, and future.
[i] Conversation with artist rod jones ii on Zoom, April 6, 2022
[ii] Conversation with artist Cheryl Harper on Zoom, March 28, 2022
Caitlin Swindell currently works as the Senior Curatorial Assistant for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum. Prior to joining the Denver Art Museum in August 2019, Caitlin worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, where she assisted with dozens of exhibitions and curated “ In the Water” and “ From Abstraction to Figuration” at the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts. She holds a master’s in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a bachelor’s in art history and anthropology from Tulane University. Caitlin has also worked as an art consultant and gallery assistant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and completed internships at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Her writing has been published in journals such African Arts, Public Art Dialogue, and Afterimage: the Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, among others.