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Grandmother’s House: The Black Radical Tradition of Collecting

Museum Professionals Seminar

Three people on Zoom
Jada-Amina Harvey
Noa Hines
Sebastien Pierre

 

 

Introduction
Jada-Amina Harvey

“The Black Radical Tradition of Collecting” came to me during the Museum Professional Seminar at The Studio Museum Harlem. During the seminar, we contemplated the historical condition of museums and their future trajectory. We interrogated museums as flawed, cultural entities, and collectively surveyed who the Studio Museum serves, its operations, and, of course, its collections. Eventually, we had no choice but to look at ourselves as well. After all, we landed in this space because we found ourselves in the Museum’s orbit.

For the better part of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have served as caretaker for my grandfather while being a cultural art worker. These roles always seemed disparate to me, but as the seminar went on, my responsibilities for my grandfather increased and I began to recognize my cultural work as a type of caretaking. I realized why I wanted to work in the museum space. I care about life and preservation. I care about collections. I care about us. I inherited this care from my grandmother. The act of Black collecting is a laborious form of care work that catalogs what we want to remember. It is a radical act of claiming ownership and assigning value. When this world is too much, home is the place we seek.

Alongside brilliant emerging art workers Sebastien Pierre and Noa Hines, who offer here their own visions of home, I envision the Black home as a cultural case study in collection and care. Together, we engage in a study of the vitality of Black space-making and the Black radical tradition of collecting as a vital dialectic in Black resistance. We traverse the worlds where walls talk Black and adornment is liberating.

 

The Piano Room Gallery
Sebastien Pierre

If home can be envisioned as an independent art space, then each occupant is a curator, art handler, and preparator, while family and friends are the audiences. Moreover, each room acts as a gallery space with an exhibition on view. This is important because exhibitions, like stories in print or on film, are powerful ways to communicate that can shape the ways we view ourselves and our communities. In the case of the Black home, displaying a family's collection is especially liberating when we consider the radical potential of Black authorship.

My mother has always been the chief curator and conservator of our home. Souvenirs from trips abroad, old family photographs, traditional Haitian artworks: Every item is displayed intentionally and with care. My favorite gallery is the Piano Room Gallery. In this room, against the wall opposite the entrance to the primary bedroom, is a small piano. Hung above it is a large, portrait-style painting commissioned from a Black artist. It depicts my mother and father on their wedding day. My mother steps out of a white carriage as my father holds her hand to assist. Side by side on top of the piano are two framed photographs, one of my father’s parents on their wedding day, and one of my mother’s on theirs.

The exhibition design tells an intergenerational love story. The grandiose portrait-style painting, along with the photographs, is grounded with a classic piano to complete the immersive quality of the exhibition. Situating this scene in front of the primary bedroom—the first and last image seen each time my parents start and end their days—gives it a functional purpose as a symbol of their commitment to each other and the home they’ve created.

While the Black home does not uphold the cultural conventions of commercially successful museum spaces, the exhibitions inside are deeply personal and uniquely important to the Black experience, offering a necessary counter-narrative to mainstream renderings of Black life. In the same way that the Black radical tradition of collecting provides independent agency, the Black radical tradition of adornment provides independent authorship and the ability to contextualize oneself in one’s own environment.

 

 
Golden Kitchen Opera
Noa Hines

My mom is a chef and my dad is a producer, and their shared love for the arts permeates our home like the oily seaside smell of a saltfish and ackee breakfast. The kitchen and dining room, painted bright yellow, and my dad’s studio are situated in an L-shape, so the dining room is the threshold between their respective zones. This is where our family congregates. Family meals are an architecture of playlists, both music and food. My parents’ music collection is the foundational heartbeat of our home, a score that vibrates the floors and walls and signals the cycles of home life to continue. I wake up cradled by sultry keys and gospel snaps, while Jill Scott crooning “Golden” indicates that I need to do the dishes before I hear my parents’ footsteps near my room. The curry-coconut-spicy-sweet scents of my Grandma Nana’s pepper shrimp and my late grandmother Elaine's waffles, crab cakes, eggs sizzling in oil, and butter melting onto grits is the transnational buffet of Black breakfast aromas. It dances with the soulful sounds, seeping through the cracks between the doors and the walls. All of this comes together like an alarm clock, summoning my siblings and me to the stage that is the dining table.

And though art is present throughout my home, the most sacred forms of curation seem to congregate in and across this kitchen–dining room–studio triangulation. If my home is a traditional art space, the kitchen and the studio are the permanent collection. They are our treasure troves of learning and growth, where we acquire the media and tastes that bolster the existing collection. The dining room is my home’s curatorial mission statement. Our gathering in this space reinforces our love for each other and reaffirms the parts of life we hold sacred. Those parts are our family history, an amalgamation of my Grandma Nana’s massive repository of reggae knowledge, the thousands of vinyls meticulously digitized by my dad, my brother’s sonogram on the same shelf as a photograph of my paternal grandparents in “Spring 1974,” a framed black-and-white of myself as a toddler with a weathering photo of my great-grandmother as a young woman in Jamaica tucked into the corner of the frame. These artifacts create the fabric of the multicultural, multigenerational tapestry that is my home.

Investment in institutionalized art spaces flows through privatized, four-wall enclosures, and as I look across the terraced windows of our mostly Black and elderly co-op, some overflowing with a lifetime’s worth of hoarded material, I can’t help but see a deconstructed and sacred model of exhibition through Black home-building and collecting. We invest in our own home spaces and show glimpses of our own cultural tapestries to exchange love and community through food, music, and art.

 

hoarding memory
Jada-Amina Harvey

A yellow ranch-style house sits at the corner of Promiseland and Babylon in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. This is where I first fell in love with special collections. A site of fellowship and fight, where family photographs, my grandfather's PhD, and photos of me, toothless, tell a story about a family. My family. There I discovered there was a life before me, that my elders were once young. In my grandmother’s home, I learned I have a personal history.

There’s a Black Jesus and a white Jesus above an organ that no longer plays the right chords. An assemblage of real flowers and plastic ones. A tapestry of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy is hung in the main gallery, like the Holy Trinity. For the longest time, I believed King was a dearly departed uncle. He is ensconced among blood relatives long gone. This is a tale of ancestral remembering.

The entertainment center holds menageries of Black figurines and one towering Virgin Mary. At her feet, my grandmother had etched her own nickname, “Bobby,” short for Barbara. Her fragile treasures—and the twenty-first-century Black American messiah Barack Obama—tell the story of what matters here.

There is also a more subtle collecting phenomenon in my grandmother’s cupboards and closets: a remarkable collection of takeout containers repurposed to hold homecooked meals and jewelry. Each vessel, acquired, kept, hoarded, is a prolific dissertation on the way Black folks assign value to objects, an interpretation of how the practical can foster the sentimental. These repurposed repositories tell the story of what it means to be born to sharecroppers, to pick cotton. To not know where your next meal will come from. To hold dear everything you got.

Our homes are embodiments. A place where everything we got is held. A site where vitals and good junk comprehensively cache memory. In the ruins there is brilliance. A history worthy of being kept, a space that transcends institutional notions of object acquisition and material value.

Grandmother’s House is a meditation on the Black home as a sacred commons. It is an envisioning of spaces that have always existed in Black worlds. It is where our creative impulses converge and refuge is curated, where hyperrealism, the Black Romantic, and poetics of the pragmatic collide. The Black radical tradition of collecting precedes and circumvents the colonial inventions of the museum, and will surely outlast their ashes. We collect because we care.