The Rise of the Contemporary Artist-Historian

Archival art serves to situate artists whose pasts have been belittled, denied or erased.

Rough hewn figures made of sand or stone stand in a gallery space.
“Titans” by Ali Cherri. AFP via Getty Images

In Venice last year, artists like Simone Leigh and Ali Cherri, but also Zineb Sedira, dove into the past to make sense of an elusive present. Sometimes these endeavors transport the viewer centuries—if not millennia—away, like the raw, primordial mud figurines of Cherri’s Titans. At other times, the work references more recent decades, as is the case with Sedira’s revival of Algerian diasporic interiors in the years following the Algerian War of Independence in the 1960-1970s (Dreams Have No Titles). While the 59th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, paid tribute to the notion of surrealist dreams, the works featured highlighted that many artists of color dream of one thing: yesterday.

The artist has increasingly turned historian in recent years and archival work, once an obscure personal pleasure or academic occupation, has taken center stage. For instance, earlier this year, I attended Sharjah Biennial 15, which features works by Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili. In The Circle, a multimedia installation, Khalili revives the memory of the Movement of Arab Workers—a social movement of North African migrants to France that organized for better work and living conditions between 1970-1976—and their theatre groups, Al Assifa and Al Halaka.

The artist as teacher

Khalili recalls that a member of Al Assifa ran for the presidency of France in 1974, as the country’s first “migrant” candidate. I had never heard of him. Between news clippings, monochromatic interview excerpts and more recent oral histories collected from former activists, I sat in a reconstituted living, immersive, vibrant history class—the kind I never experienced in formal classrooms during my childhood in France. History, or contemporary art?

Khalili’s show was confoundingly plain-as-it-is, with none of the expected “gotcha” moments of Walid Raad’s historical pastiches. Through his fictional collective “The Atlas Group,” Raad has manipulated our gaze and gullibility in a playful, politically-astute use of fake archives engaging with the grotesque moments of Lebanon’s contemporary history. Still, Khalili’s assemblage managed to trouble my own landscape of assumed knowledge. It stirred something.

In the same biennial in Sharjah, British artist Isaac Julien presented Once Again… (Statues Never Die). In multiple channels and installations of resin-encased wooden masks and African ceremonial objects, Julien overlaid archival work, including segments of conversations by critic Alain Locke and art collector Albert Barnes, two towering influences of the Harlem Renaissance. With an aesthetic proposition on the poetics of justice, Julian decries the reification of historically oppressed cultures in Western museums and re-contextualizes familiar sights in a visual rendition of suspended time.

“My investigation into the ways in which there were so many absences and erasures in archives led me to view them as a springboard for reinvention,” said Julien in an interview with Frieze ahead of his major solo show at Tate Britain, What Freedom is to me, which is on view through August 20.

“I was trying to reconstruct an interweaving of spaces which literally needed to be archivally excavated. This excavation involved a certain ontology wherein you’re haunted by the images,” he added.

A large bronze bust of a woman with no eyes in a gallery space with a thick column.
“Brick House” by Simone Leigh. AFP via Getty Images

The artist as archivist

Archival art serves to situate many artists of color whose past has been denied, erased or belittled by colonization and/or slavery. It charts a path of reclaimed truth amid contested histories.

“In the first instance, archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present,” wrote critic Hal Foster in 2004, describing archives as an “impulse.”

Mequitta Ahuja’s most recent NYC solo show Black-word, which closed last February, was shaped by the impulse to physically represent and incarnate the archive. In her case, it stemmed from the personal—she painted excerpts from letters recovered from her grandmother over Madonna-esque self-portraits. Written by her 19th-century ancestors, the letters grasp the intimate pain of deprived freedom as a correspondence between an enslaved man and a freed woman of color. Their fragments frame the paintings like mourning banderoles, channeling a genealogical language of loss and pain. The words “to enjoy your company, in this life in a state of personal freedom” feature in the painting In a Free State.

When artists historicize contemporary art, they share ruminations of a traumatic past and interrogate the haunting question of where we—individually, collectively—come from, to redress injustices and fill crippling gaps of recollections. In doing so, they deconstruct a commonly accepted (by whom?) hierarchy of informational worth (to whom?). What is a minor historical event, after all, and who gets to define and rank what it represents?

The artist-historian resurrects overlooked stories and so-called details and lets the viewer, their audience, engage with the material. Yet decolonizing seems to always push the clock backward rather than affirm a way forward, reflecting the impossibility of being fully in the present while the past remains to be healed and continues to haunt.

In the same paper about the impulsive characteristic of archives, Foster also wrote of a “failed futuristic vision.” In many ways, archives are a force of recognition and remembrance. They are transgressive but also surreal because they exist in the utopian confines of a reinvented mainstream history—one that embraces its peripheries. Not quite how I remember learning about history in school.

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“Dreams Have No Titles” by Zineb Sedira. AFP via Getty Images

What the artist-historian brings to art

The artist-historian questions ownership and liminality but also contributes to redefining the role of the critic. Because many of these shows personalize the notion of history, it becomes difficult to review the art without diminishing the validity of a process that involves an artist unearthing connections with their identity or the subject matter chosen, which has been made significant by the very notion of being examined.

The prominence of archives underscores a desire for social justice and authenticity, but also towards storytelling with stories that become a symbolic architecture of confident strength, narratives that finally complete a set of unfinished dialogues. Artists become griots of time-lapses, the investigators of the archeology of memory.

“I used an archival image, something that has been used as a souvenir to circulate ideas around the Black body, Black people and what we’re here to do and what we mean,” said Simone Leigh in a recent interview about the archetypical figure of the washerwoman that features in her sculpture Last Garment, on view at Boston’s ICA through September 4.

The artist-historian supersedes new images and layers of meaning to colonial records; it supplants, contrasts and complements them. They offer an additional view, insights and lenses into the complex world of legitimacy.

Archival materials are meant to populate a dematerialized storehouse or a museum of memories. Yet I find they can also clutter our ability to inhabit current lives when mythologized heroes and an overbearing sense of “what we once were” overshadow our agency or when minorities are reduced to processing trauma.

When do archives as “excavation sites” transition to “construction sites”? In other words, how do we link imagination with action? And does this make any “good art” at all?

The Rise of the Contemporary Artist-Historian