Last fall, as part of our year-long Carolina Seminar series centered around issues of artists’ archives, the Learning from Artists’ Archives team was joined by Nigerian photographer and Director of the Nlele Institute, Uche Okpa-Iroha. The Nlele Institute is a photography training program and resource center in Lagos, Nigeria.
Left to right: JJ Bauer, Denise Anthony, Carol Magee, Uche Okpa-Iroha
Okpa-Iroha shared with us an issue his team at Nlele was working on: how to use archival materials as teaching tools and resources for the Institute’s student photographers, and how to incorporate an archival component into the Institute’s mission.
In 2015, Okpa-Iroha, with photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi and the former director of the Goethe Institut Nigeria, Marc-Andre Schmachtel, discovered a large stock of photographic negatives in a darkroom of a building formerly occupied by Nigeria’s federal press agency, before the agency moved to Abuja from Lagos. Okpa-Iroha and his colleagues were able to recover the boxes of materials, which include decades worth of documentation of Nigeria’s political history and cultural heritage. Volunteers and staff at Nlele are currently in the process of inventorying the negatives. These materials are, to Okpa-Iroha’s knowledge, unavailable in any form anywhere else in Nigeria. They have the potential to play a crucial role in the cultural memory of the country.
By fostering aspiring photographers’ artistic, intellectual, and professional development, Nlele addresses a lack of institutional support and professional photographic training in Nigeria. Nlele’s immediate goals in preserving these materials are to: (1) Provide a readily accessible resource collection for training young photographers on documentary photographic method and style, and to (2) Educate them about Nigerian history and culture in order to more critically engage them in the documentation of its present and future. In addition to preserving the photographic material of the students trained there, Nlele has a long-term goal of identifying, acquiring, and properly preserving other Nigerian photographic collections for use as training materials and eventually for public access and research. This will entail developing the resources and infrastructure to maintain the archive over time.
In order to facilitate this initiative, Carol Magee (one of the Learning from Artists’ Archives Primary Investigators, Chair of UNC’s Department of Art and Art History, and specialist in contemporary African art history) and I will be traveling to Lagos this month to conduct a condition assessment of the negatives. The goal of this project is to assess the Nlele Institute’s collection of former Nigerian press agency photographic negatives in terms of its scope, research value, current condition, and preservation needs. The assessment will be used by the Nlele Institute as a guide for future collections assessments, as a roadmap to completing its in-progress inventory project, and as an evidentiary component of requests to fund the preservation, digitization, and archival management of the negatives.
In the Learning from Artists’ Archives program, we’ve amassed a body of experience and resources to share with NC artists, collaborating with them to “think archivally” and tailor archiving habits and practices that meet their needs. We’re excited to go global with this preparation and openness to collaboration and exchange. I’ll be reporting back here about this project and our journey, including information about our assessment methodology, so stay tuned!
As the culmination of my Learning from Artists’ Archives field experience, a studio archiving project with Asheville, NC artist Connie Bostic–which included digitization of slides and ephemera, creation of a detailed artwork inventory, and the recording of oral histories with and about Connie–ephemera, recordings, and digitized items from Bostic’s studio will be preserved as a collection of the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. Pack Library is Asheville’s central library branch, located downtown. The North Carolina Room houses special collections focusing on local history in Asheville.
Though the NC Room has many large photographic collections, this is the first living, individual artist collection at Pack–testament to Bostic’s living legacy within the community.
Bostic’s collection in the North Carolina Room will be celebrated and formally announced with a small exhibition at Pack Library, tentatively planned for early spring.
The collection will contain video oral histories, physical clippings, posters, and other ephemera, and an inventory with thumbnail images and metadata documenting 670 of Bostic’s paintings, drawings, prints, and mixed media works. Researchers will be able to access higher resolution digital images of items in the inventory upon request.
Digitized slide from Bostic’s “In the Chicken Yard” installation
These items join the North Carolina Collection’s already existing collection of ephemera documenting Bostic’s work at World and Zone One Contemporary art galleries, linchpins of Asheville’s burgeoning downtown art scene from the mid-eighties to the early aughts.
This partnership could not have come to fruition without the dedicated effort of Zoe Rhine and Ione Whitlock of the North Carolina Room, as well as Connie Bostic herself.
(This post is adapted from a talk I gave at this year’s College Art Association conference, as part of the “Supporting Creative Legacies in Local Communities: Lessons Learned from the Artists Studio Archives Project” panel session with project Co-PI’s JJ Bauer and Carol Magee and Advisory Board Member Heather Gendron.)
Connie Bostic and collaborator David Dawson with Snakemobile. According to Connie, the kids “belonged to the house next to the church, they just ran out of the house to see the car.” Digitized from slide c. 2000s
Connie Bostic with Recognition of Death Digitized from slide c. 1989
It was a couple of months after the Asheville, North Carolina artist Connie Bostic had agreed to let me intern with her for a studio archiving project that I learned from a mutual friend what Connie had once shared about (joked about?) her hopes for her legacy. Connie had told her, “When I’m gone, I just want them to take all my stuff out in the yard and burn it in a bonfire.” As unsettling as this was for a nascent archivist to hear at the time, I later came to an understanding of this statement within the context of Connie’s life and work. Indeed, it was through the process of working with Connie’s materials as a student and proto-archivist, seeing them through the lenses of the different roles the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” internship was designed to cultivate, that I came to a fuller understanding of this seemingly tongue-in-cheek attitude towards legacy.
My project with Connie (as touched on in my last post) comprises the digitization of selected slides and ephemera, the creation of an artwork inventory, the establishment of a documentation trail for certain of her works sold or donated to private and public collections, the collection of a limited set of oral histories with and about Connie, and outreach to Asheville’s central library branch to gauge their interest in adding to their collection additional materials pertaining to Connie’s career.
Flyer – Once and For All, 1992
To plan the project, I initially reached out to Connie in February of last year in order to assess her studio needs. Most of the work took place last fall. Initially, we discussed synthesizing and updating her studio inventory, but her old inventory had been physical, and was out of date. I created a new inventory of all the artworks in her studio, as well as those in the collections that I was able to track down from her notes and advice, about 670 paintings, drawings, prints, and mixed media works thus far. While my initial project plan called for a database, the inventory in its current form is in an Excel spreadsheet. Non-archival quality snapshots of most of the works in Connie’s studio are included with each record to make the inventory more legible and usable for her. I digitized selections of Connie’s ephemera, as well as 183 of her slides, numbered to match with inventory entries.
Screenshot of inventory portion
Performing the “archivist” role in this project meant that I needed to develop my working knowledge of what an archivist was, and what sort of archivist I would be in managing this project. In 1970, Howard Zinn’s address to the Society of American Archivists represented a change in the conception of perceived “passive” archiving practices. Instead, he encouraged the development of archival practices geared towards actively seeking records that will help to document the lives of people and communities traditionally underrepresented in archives. I went into this project with an understanding that my choices, even as a student working in a limited way on a collection, are political.
File structure for management of project’s digital assets
In the case of Connie’s artworks, due to the scale of her collection, I chose to focus on the intellectual rather than physical arrangement of inventory items. Arranging a collection intellectually is like making a map. And of course, “map is not territory.” Early on in the process, answering questions about work titles and dates required sessions with the two of us going through images together to determine approximate dates and titles, if applicable. But in doing so, I also learned about Connie’s practice as an artist–for some works, the titles were vital and the works were timely, tied to specific events and easily dated, such as her Katrina series, her “Day at the Fair” Series, painted on Sept. 11, 2001, or her Mark of the Goddess series, part of her MFA thesis exhibition, the reception of which was tied to a political climate informed by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ attempts in the late 1980s to legislate against so-called “indecent” art. Other of her works could be dated according to her slide library, newspaper clippings, and exhibition materials. At this point, the role of archivist began to shade into that of art historian.
Katrina series: 6 (2005) Oil on canvas 14.75” x 12.75”
From Day at the Fair series (2001) Oil on mat board 13.5” x 10”
Connie began studying art in earnest in the 1970s, eventually receiving her MFA at Western Carolina University. Later, Connie and Bob Godfrey, the Head of the Art Department there, would run a gallery, The World, together in downtown Asheville, under the umbrella of Western Carolina University. WCU pulled its funding from that gallery a year later in 1987, due to controversy over some of Mapplethorpe’s works being shown in an exhibition there, a small battle in the culture wars. In 1991, Connie opened another art space in the same building, Zone One Contemporary, the first dedicated contemporary art gallery in downtown Asheville. It closed in 2000.
clipping, Collection of Connie Bostic
From A Thorn of Memory (c. 1996) Oil on mat board 17” x 11”
A series of her works, as well as a commissioned mural, focus on the writer Thomas Wolfe, himself a native Ashevillian. As I catalogued these works, I discovered one of her consistent interests, the tension between artistic legacy and physical oblivion. This phrase that she had used among friends to subtly deride her lasting legacy–“burn it in a bonfire”–was drawn from one of her foundational influences, Thomas Wolfe. In citing the fire that she may or may not want to consume her work after her death, she makes veiled, perhaps unconscious, reference to a foundational moment of awakening at the beginning of her life, her discovery of Wolfe’s oeuvre at age 15. At the same time, her remark evinces a rejection of traditional assignations of value to the art object, just as the content of her work undermines comfort with the norms on which those assignations of value rely, especially within her local art scene. Reflecting on this discovery, I realized that my responsibility as an archivist to think about a potential donor’s legacy is nuanced by my training as an art historian, and helps me to understand the complex way that the artist I’m working for conceives of endings and beginnings.
“God! I’d like to go up all at once in one good blaze – just like a bonfire.” The Good Child’s River
The role of documentarian provides one name for the overlap that exists between archivist and art historian. I conducted four oral histories with and about Connie, to be kept with her collection. Participants include friends, colleagues, and students. In an interview with Connie and Linda Larsen, Connie’s friend, fellow artist, and longtime collaborator, I was particularly interested in documenting the story behind Connie’s controversial MFA thesis exhibition, which was covered in the local press and which I initially learned about while digitizing her clippings and ephemera.
Despite changes in the profession over the last 40 years that have helped us to dispense with the illusion of the ostensibly “neutral” archivist who collects passively, there is still a sense that an archivist should not be too invested in what she chooses to or not to collect and preserve. In general, this is for good reason, in order to avoid conflicts of interest. The valorization of a vague archival neutrality has given way to cultivation of our profession’s diplomatic skills, balancing the interests of stakeholders in a professional and informed manner, while also acknowledging our own interests. All of the roles I’ve discussed are themselves interventions, affecting the archive as it is intellectually and physically organized, the narratives pulled from it, and how it can affect the artist’s career–or perceptions thereof. With my choice of an artist to work with, I was also making a choice about my own understanding of the value of artists’ archives. I chose someone intrinsically local, whose story and work is tied to her community, but who intervenes within larger narratives and movements.
In thinking about the pedagogical effectiveness of this part of the “Learning from Artists’ Archives” program, and about how this internship has better prepared me for my career, I’ve discovered that the experience has generated a recognition that is both practical and political–that my choices are interventions, and therefore I need to be conscious, careful, and accountable for each choice that I make, prepared to base justifications for those choices within an established practical literature. I can’t help but parallel the roles I’ve explored in this project with both the exploration and confrontation of given roles and narratives that Connie deploys in her artwork, as well as with the various roles Connie has performed throughout her life–as artist, gallerist, owner of an Asheville gay bar in the late 80s, dog trainer, art teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother. She wears them lightly, not worrying too much about whether they conflict or fail to hang together in a legible way, confident that they make sense taken singly or together within the context of her life and practice. And so, even as I acknowledge the value in strengthening through specific efforts my performance in the roles I’ve discussed, I strive to do the same.
 Zinn, H. (1971). Secrecy, archives, and the public interest. Boston University Journal, 19(3), 37.
 Wicker, T. (July 28, 1989.) In the nation: Art and Indecency.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/28/opinion/in-the-nation-art-and-indecency.html
Prior to becoming 2nd year fellows of the Artists’ Archives initiative, our application of knowledge was largely general. We led workshop sessions for groups of artists and presented at library conferences, but rarely did we provide in depth, tailored consultations with individual artists who had particular needs. Starting this year, however, my class of fellows has filled that gap by digging into the second internship required by the initiative: consulting with a North Carolina artist to establish their studio archive.
Tailoring the artists’ archives knowledge to a specific artist’s needs has clarified my understanding of the power of organization on an artist’s practice. It has also brought to the fore what is required of an artist-archivist team before even touching the materials to start the archive. First, we have to get at the underlying psychology behind why and how someone naturally organizes. For my artist, Durham letterpress artist Brian Allen, this meant digging down to (1) how he prioritises, categorises and uses his materials currently, (2) how he intends to use them in the future and (3) how he naturally arranges this materials.
Establishing existing priorities, categories and uses for studio materials is an essential first step for two main reasons, one being the archival principal of ‘original order’ and the other the long term viability of maintaining the archive. Archivists prioritise keeping materials or a collection in original order where it makes sense for the collection’s internal logic and intended audience. The principle of original order becomes particularly vital when an archive will be actively used by the original creator of the collection. To drive the point home, here’s a more mundane example of the impact of original order on making a grouping of items searchable. Have you ever had a family member or friend who decided to ‘help’ you by reorganising your kitchen, closet or desk? Remember how you couldn’t find anything for days (possibly weeks) after? That’s because the priorities and categories they assigned to your materials didn’t align with yours or your patterns of use. In archival terms, they abandoned the original order – the internal logic – of your materials. Like with home organization, the usefulness of an archive only stretches as far as it is navigable from a user standpoint. Understanding current use and workflows regarding studio materials allows archivists to replicate them as appropriate going forward. That way the archive work for and with the artist for which it was constructed.
The appropriateness of maintaining original order is determined, in part, by intended future use of the materials, as well. For Brian, his intended future use of his artistic production as a legacy collection for donation takes a backseat to just having it arranged now so that he’s aware of and can find all that he has and so that he can identify where projects overlap and relate. However, his extensive reference library is another story. Brian expressed an interest in having husband extensive catalogue updated, but not for his current, personal use. Instead, he envisions his library as a community resource that would be just one aspect of opening his studio up to the community as a gallery and learning space. These attitudes towards use of his studio materials and reference collection drive the decisions we made regarding arrangement and how much to alter or maintain his current arrangement, priorities and categories.
Determining natural organisation practices represents the final step in pre-action preparation for establishing a studio archive. As our physical storage handout outlines, most people fall into three categories: (1) piler, (2) filer and (3) spring cleaner (see image below). Brian, like myself, tends to be a combination of piler and spring cleaner. To make any organisational strategy functional in th long run, the structure needs to follow the path of least resistance. As anyone with failed New Year’s resolutions can attest, maintaining new behaviours that don’t work with natural inclinations or ingrained patterns requires too much effort and too many habit alterations to be sustainable. For Brian’s studio archive, this meant maintaining the categories he’d already assigned his materials, both consciously and unconsciously, in clear plastic boxes that allow him to see both the label and the contents. The boxes are also highly portable and maintained on shelves that also move. His space tends to fluctuate in purpose, so ensuring that his storage accommodated this was essential. Even his oversized materials that require flat file storage are in units with casters and labelled according to their categorised contents. By working with Brian’s natural inclinations and making maintaining the organisation at simple as possible, the hope is that maintenance will feel intuitive and thus not require Brian to employ someone to manage his materials after I finish up my work.