I wonder how many people have access to archive material that relates to their family history? Whether that is in the form of photographs, letters, diary entries, thought pieces in newspapers or journal articles. It’s just fascinating to think about what material is of importance to be kept for future generations of a family. In many ways, these decisions of what is kept and lost throughout time are something shared between personal and institutional archives. From my perspective, the main link between these types of archives is that the starting point of establishing an archive is always personal, even if the context is about documenting the history of a business or institution.
The decision to preserve is an intriguing memory tool that could involve a particular moment in time or even span many years. Because that decision has to wrestle with many external factors which can either hinder or support said documentation. People working within institutions such as archivists, curators or collections managers have spent many years justifying and codifying what material counts as archive material worthy of preservation and a basis of knowledge to draw from. Yet, this view of preservation or documentation is just one out of many ways in which knowledge is passed down and disseminated. And I believe the construction of family archives as a loose term to describe person led documentation is a central example of this.
This blog post was inspired by my recent visit to the Rita Keegan: Somewhere Between There and Here show at the South London Gallery. I’m very grateful to my friend Lauren Craig for drawing my attention to this show they contributed towards, as a member of the Rita Keegan Archive Project.
In Gallery 1, the connection between the history of the African diaspora and photos from Keegan’s archive is explored via the mixed-media installation. Keegan’s photographs is a gentle reminder that the history of the African diaspora involves different perspectives and that enslavement is not the only lens through which to view this history. Reparations in this context have been mentioned multiple times within this exhibition. From my understanding, Keegan’s resource in the form of archive material offers an opportunity to repair how aspects of Black history have been told, through the act of documentation.
Such documentation also features within Keegan’s series of Copy Art images. The layers of different material speak to Keegan’s own multi-faceted identity.
In gallery 3, I felt Keegan’s family ties were most prominently displayed. In one illuminated lightbox, there is a family portrait where Keegan appears as a silhouette in the shape of a baby.
The rest of the room is filled with artworks from Keegan’s uncle Keith Simon — an artist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance but spent time in London (1952–1972).
Simon’s probe into the human figures — particularly male figures — drew from geometric shapes and forms of pre-Columbian structures from their place of birth, in Belize (Lorraine Brooks, 2021).
To close, I can’t forget to mention a key part of the mixed media piece in gallery 1. The central figure is fitted to Keegan’s body which is clothed in a mixed ‘social fabric’ of patchworks from a network of family, friends and collaborators. In a sense demonstrates Keegan’s long-standing practice of collaborative art-making, from the 80s.
There are so many examples of collaboration within this exhibition. From the collective that makes up the Rita Keegan Archive project to the inclusion of work by Keith Simon. These connections between a range of people feel necessary to adequately share histories that are inextricably tied to others. In a way, while this exhibition focuses on the art and collaborative practices of Keegan, the process of making or display consistently highlights the roles of others. Perhaps countering this idea that recognition is only limited to a few people when it can in fact comfortably hold the narratives of all those involved.
Rita Keegan (b.1949 the Bronx, United States) is an artist of Caribbean and Black-Canadian descent. After studying fine art in San Francisco, Keegan moved to London and was an integral part of the British Black Arts Movement. During the 80s, off the back of racial tensions and uprisings, Keegan established spaces and practices which combined the platforming of Black memory, supporting Black artists, advocating for the pooling resources for art-making and interrogating the role of technology within art.