The opposite of archiving: Zoe Leonard, Fae Richards, and the Watermelon Woman

October 3, 2016

Sometimes things align, but mostly, really, it’s because they are already connected. Such is the case with the showing of Zoe Leonard’s compelling new body of work, “In the Wake,” currently showing at Hauser & Wirth and the cotemporaneous screening of The Watermelon Woman at the Museum of Modern Art: both in New York City, as am I, today.

Zoe Leonard: Positano, 1946 (detail), 2016.

Zoe Leonard: Positano, 1946 (detail), 2016.

“In the Wake,” Leonard’s compendium of three related works (sculptural and photographic) reflecting on the photo in/as/against the archive stretches the work she did on a linked set of questions over twenty years ago while making the Fae Richards Archive with myself (as co-producer and actor), Cheryl Dunye (as co-director) and a rowdy, talented, committed group of dykes, artists, and intellectuals from NYC and Philadelphia. That archive now sits and shows, in part, in the film I produced (with Barry Swimar), The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which is currently enjoying its twentieth year re-release of a beautifully remastered print. As a complementary part of its return, Cheryl Dunye, Marc Smolowitz and I have energized what we call WMW 3.0 art shows where curators of younger generations revisit the film, its photo archives and production ephemera, and mount art shows joining that work with new objects by contemporary artists who are engaging, with today’s urgency and concerns, with the central issues of The Watermelon Woman: the relations between photography and film, archives, memory, self- and community-expression, history, power, and legacy, particularly as experienced by lesbians, queers, people of color and women.

A Subtle Likeness features work by four contemporary artists—Ayanah Moor, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Anna Martine Whitehead, and Kandis Williams—whose diverse artistic practices resonate with the film’s themes.

A Subtle Likeness features work by four contemporary artists—Ayanah Moor, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Anna Martine Whitehead, and Kandis Williams—whose diverse artistic practices resonate with the film’s themes.

Installation at Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Cultural Production, curated by Melonie Gree, Melorra Green and Dorothy Santos

Installation at Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Cultural Production, curated by Melonie Green, Melorra Green and Dorothy Santos.

Traveling the world (again) with the film, living in close proximity with its (fake) archive, discussing it with new audiences and our team of WMW 3.0 curators (Erin Christovale, Vivian Crocket, Melonie Green, Melorra Green, Natasha Johnson and Dorothy Santos), and at a recent symposium at SF State, organized by Darius Bost and others, Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Cultural Production: A Symposium Honoring the 20th Anniversary of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, I find myself in eerie alliance, or perhaps simply ongoing connection or even conversation (from afar), with Zoe’s discussion of her own current work about the past as “the opposite of archiving.”

Ephemera from the making of the Fae Richards Archive currently displayed at the One National Gay and Lesbian Archives as part of the show, "Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman," curated by Erin Christovale

Ephemera from the making of the Fae Richards Archive currently displayed at the One National Gay and Lesbian Archives, LA, as part of the show, “Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman,” curated by Erin Christovale.

Since I was in NY, while she was at the opening in LA, Cheryl took and shared with me cellphone photos of the now familial objects (from the fake archive in which my friends and I were first seen, twenty years ago) displayed at a Subtle Likeness and Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman (still showing at the One Archives). In NY, “In the Wake” finds Zoe Leonard also photographing photographs of her family’s partial, haunting, inconclusive archive of post-Holocaust snapshots, in the process turning them, as well, into luminous, reiterative, more-than-precious keys to history’s and family’s unfathomable and always unfindable truths.

Zoe Leonard, Misia, postwar (detail), 2016.

Zoe Leonard, Misia, postwar (detail), 2016.

The opposite of archiving for so many reasons and in so many ways, Leonard distorts the record with her highly visible photographic processes, multiplies away the value of the archive’s precious objects by replicating them and then showing them again and again, albeit differently, and transforms lowly family snapshots into high art through her refined aesthetic sensibility and masterful developing techniques, beautiful framing and exacting display, and placement in room after room of the toniest of townhouses on the Upper East Side.

Cheryl and Alex dancing. By Michael Light, The Watermelon Woman at the Berlin International FIlm Festival 1996, 1997

Cheryl and Alex dancing. By Michael Light, The Watermelon Woman at the Berlin International Film Festival 1996, 1997. At “Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman,” One Archive.

The opposite of archiving for so many reasons. For, ordinary life can be and is made into art, not artifacts, sometimes by loving communities in the living of it, and sometimes by later communities in the lasting of it.

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More fake ephemera from Fae’s life (by Zoe Leonard) and real artifacts of my own. Now in the One Archive curated by Erin Christovale.

Archive’s opposite because the Fae Richards Archive was a carefully, lovingly researched and rendered fake, made by many, because we believed in the telling of the story of someone (Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman) who must have been true but couldn’t benefit in her time from today’s most obvious, irresistible right and activity: living a life available to the photographic record and its lasting home in an archive.

Zoe Leonard, Total Picture Control (I), 2016

Zoe Leonard, Total Picture Control (I), 2016

The opposite of archiving because, thankfully, real people, our lived lives and luscious loves, our full-tilt embrace of experience in community and history and art, will never be fully available to any archive’s or the internet’s quest for total picture control. Rather, we enter ourselves into history and its many archives here again, and as Zoe does and has done before, by celebrating the photograph’s partial, artistic, personal hold on people, truth, and life.

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