Bonke Sonjani is currently pursuing a Masters in Heritage Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also a trainee archivist at the GALA Queer Archives where he is interested in homosexual student protests in South Africa.
Dr Irma McClaurin recently presented a guest lecture with the Center for Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in which she spoke about her renowned black feminist archive established for the preservation and dissemination of history and heritage black women. The Black Feminist Archive is one of a kind – it is the first archive in the world that acts as a catalyst for the collection, protection and dissemination of the voices of Black African/American women who have been inherently excluded from official histories. Dr. McClaurin originally developed the archive as a record of her own life and her experiences at the various institutions for which she worked. By acknowledging the power relations embedded in the cis-gender and male-dominated field of study – anthropology in which she earned a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, McClaurin acts as a vector of both resistance and radical re-imagining. Black feminist archives provide a training ground for black archivists to counter the heteropatriarchal profession of archivist.
McClaurin says she believes everyone is an archive filled with rich family, professional and social history. According to her, “Our stories are a necessary (and sometimes secret) ingredient in a recipe for impactful social change in America” (McClaurin 2021). As such, she encouraged all conference attendees to begin documenting their emails, letters, notes and lived experiences, saying these serve as an archive of thoughts, methodologies and events. McClaurin’s take on the Black Feminist Archive is inspiring. She does not approach the project from the “institutionalized” practice of archiving which has a discursive history of eradicating queer, black and female bodies from accepted narratives of history. Additionally, through what I would call a “bottom-up” methodology, McClaurin helps Black women celebrate and preserve their experiences and stories that reflect “lifetimes” of activism, resistance, creativity, and production. intellectual. Through such methodologies, their life and their various contributions (artistic, social, political, scientific, etc.) are recognized as having played a major role in the development of a more complete American History (McClaurin 2021).
McClaurin’s artistic practices, both as an activist bio-cultural anthropologist and as an archivist, inspire me as a young scholar. As a former recipient of the Andrew W Mellon Prize from the History Department of the Humanities Research Center at the University of the Western Cape, and as an aspiring curator, archivist and heritage practitioner, McClaurin’s work has provided a model for my artistic practices. As a former history scholar at a historically black university that does not have an art school, McClaurin inspired my positioning within my artistic research interests.
What sets McClaurin apart from other scholars and artists is his aura – during the conference, one couldn’t help but feel so empowered and inspired to start the projects they had been putting off. It was the same case for me too, I had a hard time situating myself in my research interests. I consulted with my lecturers and various other people who could inform my curatorial practices on “how” to organize and initiate the projects I designed. The meaning of McClaurin’s assertion about black feminist archives has therefore inspired me beyond these various engagements I have had with other scholars and artists. I have learned that following institutionalized canons of “how to” only reiterates the gendered and heteropatriarchal terrains of artistic practices. And so countering these canons as McClaurin did would provide what Alberta Whittle calls “a conservation conservation strategy” in which she argues that “biting the hand that feeds you” (referring to official institutions) is necessary. to the destruction and harmful patterns of contemporary arts (Whittle 2019).
This notion of “bite the hand, the hand feeds you” as posed by Whittle involves engaging with communities and ordinary citizens in order to infiltrate and counter cis-gender white spaces in contemporary arts. McClaurin has used this strategy of curating black feminist archives in practice by preserving material from black women like Miss Archie Henderson Jones, who turns 97 this year. According to McClaurin, Miss Archie is an anthropologist whose work remains unpublished in academic journals and websites such as Google Scholar, Academia and JSTOR due to her provocative approach to anthropology that viewed black people as unworthy of research. By engaging with her material, the Black Feminist Archive aims to highlight her material on black people while giving it agency and recognition at the same time. As a feminist scholar interested in reclaiming the ostracized narratives of queer people from student protests such as the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall movements, I was inspired by the Black Feminist Archive to “bite the hand” by demonstrating agency for the queer student. community by writing an arts-based research project that illustrates the contribution of queer people to movements.
Whittle, A. 2019. Biting the Hand That Feeds You: A Temperamental Conservation Strategy, Critical Arts, 33; 6, 110-123
McClaurin, I. 2021. Black Women: Seen and Heard. Foundation of the Black Feminist Archives at UMass. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst.