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The Schomburg Legacy Lives On: The Genius of Deborah Willis

Dr. Deborah Willis is a pioneer in the field of photography. Her first book, Black Photographers, 1840–1940 : An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, has inspired the work of countless photographers, scholars, and writers.  The genius of her work has been recognized in the form of both MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim Fellowships, and countless awards. In this interview, Dr. Willis discusses the BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures conference, her photography work, and her pioneering work as curator of Photographs and Prints at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Deborah Willis
Deborah Willis Portrait Collection
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Photographs and Print Division
Photographer: Jim Huffman

Alexsandra Mitchell: Can you tell us a bit about the Black Portraitures conferences and what inspired the creation of the conference series?  

Deborah Willis: Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions, Strains of Histories and Cultures was held in Johannesburg for three days at Turbine Hall last November. The conference was part of a series of conversations begun in 2004 at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University focusing on imaging the black body in art, history, writing and film. I worked closely with professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cheryl Finley (Cornell), Manthia Diawara (New York University), and Thelma Golden (Executive Director of  the Studio Museum in Harlem) in planning and setting up the first event. The conference grew over the years and provided a forum for artists, activists, and scholars from around the world to share ideas about the state of African, African Diaspora and African American art, history, and art history. In 2004, the DuBois Research Institute hosted "Bridging the Gaps: First Annual Conference on African American Art." In 2007, I worked closely with my colleague, Awam Ampka, New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts, and the others in organizing the second one, and later with Professor Leslie King Hammond in Baltimore, where it was held at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Center for Race and Culture. After moving the conference back to NYU, I co-organized the Beauty and Fashion conference.  At each conference, attendees got a closer look at African, African- American and black art experiences in diverse ways.  And in 2013, we held "Black Portraitures: The Black Body in the West" at the Musee Quai Branly, Ecole des Beaux Art Paris in Paris. In 2015, "Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Restaging Histories" was held at NYU’s Villa La Pietra in Florence and, after overwhelming demand, it was brought to NYU Washington Square’s campus earlier last year for "Black Portraitures: Revisited."

AM: How does your experience as former curator of the Schomburg’s Photographs and Prints Division influence the work you do both at New York University and with the conferences?

DW: The photograph for me is an instrument of memory, and explores the value of self, family and memory in documenting everyday life. I use this concept of loving family as a form of activism. As a photographer, educator and curator, I have used photography to retell stories about family life and explore memories.  When I became aware of the photograph as an important storytelling device, I was a young girl growing up in North Philadelphia. My personal experience with photography has many dimensions. In my artwork, I attempt to relive family memories by incorporating old photographs with contemporary images I made while exploring the nuances of those memories. In photographing my family, I found a way of entering the past and commenting on societal issues that I believe helped to shape my interest in visual culture. My career has been divided into two distinct areas—studio art and art history. My academic writing has addressed critical questions in the broad areas of photographic history, visual culture, African-American art, iconicity, popular and material culture. Within these fields, I have consistently focused my research on themes such as body politics, race and gender, photography and the politics of visual culture. I selected these topics because they involve central questions of visual theory and art history practices. For example, as a curator at the Schomburg Center in the 1980s and 1990s, I noticed that there was no text offering a critical discussion of the photograph referencing the black subject or the maker of the photograph, who is African-American. I met with researchers working on projects about black experiences in the U.S. and abroad.  As a curator at the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum Project, and later as professor at NYU, my central questions broadened as I began to think critically about this gap in history, and later produced books and published articles addressing images on black culture. I used the collections at the Schomburg Center as a central focus in my writing on the subject of photography. In my work, I looked at how photographs have been used by photographers who've looked at the black family, how families and the general public preserve and use images of black people, the implications of stereotyping, and what assumptions are made of images of women. My first book, Black Photographers: A Bio-Bibliography 1840–1940, was the follow-up to an undergraduate paper on black photographers. In the 1970s, while a student at the Philadelphia College of Art, I visited the Schomburg Center to research that paper and met Jean Blackwell Hutson, at that time the head of the Schomburg and one of the most significant workers there. Ernest Kaiser, who was in the midst of creating an index to articles on black life, along with Hutson pointed me in right direction for that research as a young student. In 1980, after receiving my MFA in Photography from Pratt Institute, I was hired by Assistant Director Ruth Ann Stewart as the Prints and Photographs Specialist.

AM: What were some of your favorite collection acquisitions during your time as curator, and do they impact your current work as an international Africana scholar?

DW: The highlight of my life at that time was to have the opportunity to work at the Schomburg Center. I met famed Harlem photographer, James VanDerZee, and was able to identify some of the photographs that were already in the collection; photographers like him and others who worked in the 1840s and 1850s, such as James Presley Ball. I was also able to catalog and identify these works and other photographers working in the 1900s to the 1940s; including C. M. Battey, Addison Scurlock, Robert McNeill, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Gordon Parks. And in the 1950s and 60s; Moneta Sleet, Jr., Charles “Chuck” Stewart’s photographs of jazz musicians and vocalists, and Bert Andrews photographs of black theater on and off Broadway, which opened up a new way of considering programming for the Schomburg. It added to and shaped the performing arts collections.

Ada "Bricktop" Smith (far left) seated with ladies at table.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Ada "Bricktop" Smith (far left) seated with ladies at table." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1920. Image ID: 4015346

My favorite acquisitions included meeting twin brothers Morgan and Marvin Smith, and helping to box, acquire, and catalog their photographs. I was awestruck when the two walked into my office, led by Hutson, because I searched for them in my paper. Other highlights were Charles “Teenie” Harris (Pittsburgh); Austin Hansen (Harlem and the Virgin Islands); the Fredi Washington and Ada “Bricktop” Smith’s photograph collections of significant women who enjoyed their lives on stage and in Paris. Meeting Fredi Washington, as well as dancers Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins, was a pure joy. I recall how excited I was to hear Washington's stories about her life as an actress working with Paul Robeson. Delilah Jackson helped me to identify photograph collections that were at risks of being lost and/or destroyed. All of the photographers became key people in my life throughout my career—from curating to teaching. I also contacted my contemporaries working in photography who were instrumental in acquiring a few of their works, including Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Jeffrey Scales among others. In processing the Gordon Parks photographs, which had been placed in the stacks on top of a high dusty cabinet, I discovered his FSA photographs and OWI photographs that he made in Harlem and D.C. It was a thrill to place the photos in acid free boxes and place the photographs in Mylar. As an international scholar, all of these experiences transformed my life and my thinking of how critical photographs are as a primary record. In the early 1990s, while searching for photographic images of black women at the Schomburg, I met photographer and writer Carla Williams (she was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico then). We decided to collaborate on our research efforts, and in 2002 we co-authored and published The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. The book included 200 images that spanned three centuries and continents.

Fredi Washington and Louise Beavers in a scene from the motion picture Imitation of Life
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Fredi Washington and Louise Beavers in a scene from the motion picture Imitation of Life" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1934. Image ID: 4005234

AM: What are some of the archival influences and innovations you've seen at BPIII?

DW: I loved reading all of the proposals submitted and a good number of panels and speakers focused on the concept of the archive in art, exhibitions, and libraries across the world. For example, Anna Arabindan-Kesson’s (Princeton University) paper examined the role of Indian photographers in the creation of African photographic archives, to further our understanding of the factors shaping colonial entanglements and visual production in late nineteenth-century South Africa and Zanzibar. Temi Odumosu's (Malmö University, Sweden) "Traces of Congo in the Nordic Colonial Archive" presented an amazing paper on how archival materials represent Nordic engagements in West Central Africa. Zanele Muhole was the key speaker on "Reimagining the Archive Through a Queer Lens." Your presentation, "Live from the Reading Room: The African Influence,” on the "Re-Imagining the Archive" panel, enlivened the discussions on the topic. Other panel titles that created a new way of considering the archive include; “Pan African Futures: Exploring Race as Technology;” “Afrofuturism as Methodology,” “From South Africa to South Carolina: Postwar Music and Black Spaces;” “#BlackLivesMatter: Interrogating Representations of Black Bodies in Pain and Black Lives Without History,” “What’s Wrong With This Picture? Conflicted Circuits of Dispersal, Desire, and Return in Exquisite Portraiture,” "Venus’ on My Back: Girls of Color, Inheritance, and the Hottentot Venus Narrative,” and "Black Power @ 50 Conversations Part II: Image as Protest On The Media: Representing African Photography Today," as well as the personal reflections by some artists and photographers such as Marilyn Nance, who discussed her work at Festac and other portraits of artists. 

AM: The Schomburg Center has a longstanding commitment to not only preserve and collect materials from the African Diaspora, but to be active in various scholarly and artistic communities throughout the diaspora. How did the conference organizers select Johannesburg as the cite for this iteration of the conference?

DW: The location in South Africa was historic and had contemporary significance because the conference participants addressed topics such as the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings, the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter protests, and the state of contemporary art practice in South Africa 20 years after the end of apartheid. Johannesburg was the site of the first biennial of contemporary art in South Africa in 1995, one year following the democratic election of Nelson Mandela as president. Its vibrant arts scene was significant, with important private and state funded galleries and museums, as well as universities that teach studio art, theory and criticism classes. It was also important because it was an opportunity to honor and acknowledge the contributions of the American Ambassador to South Africa, Ambassador Patrick Gaspard, and to invite renowned artist and art historian, Dr. David C. Driskell, to deliver a keynote address. He shared his experiences about his time in South Africa as an artist and curator in the 1970s.

The decision to organize this historic conference in Johannesburg also grew out of our early interests in South African photographers, such as Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane, and George Hallett. These photographers transformed our understanding of living under apartheid while reading Drum magazine and listening to the music of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. The opportunity to discuss social protest movements in America and in South Africa through the works of Santu Mofokeng or Gavin Jantjes, to look at the art of women creating work about the black body, such as Tracey Rose and Zanele Muholi, and to look at how new media has been used to tell new stories was essential to us.

Deborah Willis
Deborah Willis Portrait Collection
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Photographs and Print Division
Photographer: Jim Huffman

AM: Bayete Ross Smith mentioned to me that his work is heavily influenced by his time as a child when he and your son, Hank Willis Thomas, would come here after school to see you during your time as curator. Do you think your work here has had a influence on Hank and his recent show in conjunction with the conference, "In Context: Africans In America," at the Goodman Gallery and The Johannesburg Art Gallery?

DW: Yes. Hank and Bayete spent hours in the Schomburg attending exhibition openings and public programs I curated and organized. It was their after school activity when I had to work late, and it was fascinating to see them ask questions about the photographs and play with their toys while listening in the back of the room to the speakers. I believe all the speakers’ words penetrated in some way that helped to shape their work today.  They had their own live streaming early on in their young lives. Interestingly, they did not complain. When I attend their lectures today, it is encouraging to listen to them acknowledge their Schomburg days. It was always an adventure because they met a celebrity or two each time. They also learned photography as Boy Scouts. I set up my kitchen and bathroom as developing and printing rooms for them when they were pre teens for a few of their members. In regards to the exhibition, the conference coincided with the 50th anniversary of the pioneering Goodman Gallery, where the exhibition, "Africa America," featured works of some of the world’s most sought after African, African-American and African Diaspora artists. Liza Essers and Hank curated it.

AM: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

DW: I would like to close this interview by sharing with you that having the opportunity to work with Ellis Haizlip (aka Mr. Soul) was a defining moment in my career as a researcher, curator, and programmer. Ellis, like Robin Kelley, understood love and the importance of preserving the archival record of the voices and visionaries that changed America and the black diaspora. I have such love for the work at the Schomburg and what all of you are doing to open the doors to the next generation.

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