We go about life immersed in our day-to-day tasks, responsibilities, and relationships, without necessarily thinking about our legacy or how we want to be remembered. But what happens when you’re gone?
In the case of African American choreographer and video artist Blondell Cummings, her multidisciplinary artmaking left behind a record of her creative life. As an artist, she combined dance with elements of theater, text, photography, and film. Her works are not just memories; they also captured her own words through moving images, texts, and photography to provide insights into how she approached her craft and what she was conveying through her choreographic language and beyond.
In 2019, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) approached Art + Practice (A+P), a nonprofit based in the south Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park, to organize a solo exhibition of Blondell Cummings’s work. A+P and the GRI had the opportunity to work closely with the artist’s family to digitize her archive of tapes and films, capturing Cummings performing her works, many of which stemmed from her personal memories.
Ahead of the exhibition, which opened September 18, 2021, A+P talked to GRI curators about Getty’s African American Art History Initiative, the exhibition, and Blondell Cummings. What emerged from that conversation was a question inspired by Cummings: “Why is it important to tell one’s own story?”
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and explores how organizing an exhibition celebrating Cummings’s artistic practice also allows us to think about how artists can tell their own stories.
Joshua Oduga, A+P’s public programs and exhibitions manager, and Sophia Belsheim, A+P’s deputy director, joined the GRI’s Kristin Juarez, research specialist; Rebecca Peabody, head of research projects and academic outreach; Glenn Phillips, senior curator and head of exhibitions and modern and contemporary collections; and Alex Jones, research assistant for modern and contemporary collections.
Joshua Oduga: When the GRI approached us to organize an exhibition of Blondell Cummings’s work, one of the things that struck me was hearing her talk about the work she was making in her own words in her videos. Hearing artists talk about their work in their own words gives a different context than when you experience the work on your own.
Glenn Phillips: You might think it’s natural for an artist to talk about their story, but I have found that most artists are interested in talking about their next artwork or what they’re making right now. That’s always the dilemma with a historian or when an artist becomes particularly associated with one period. They don’t want to talk about what happened in 1973. They want you to see what they did yesterday.
If you’re a driven artist, then you want to spend your time creating and not worrying about the past. It’s something all of us struggle with in life in one way or another. We like to be in the present. An archive is not always front of mind.
Sophia Belsheim: There’s value in the accretion of multiple perspectives on the same history. The artist is a crucial part of that. You may end up with several different versions of a memory that differs slightly, but the fact that they accumulate and come together to build something is more important than how we come to have a sense of history.
Rebecca Peabody: That’s one of the reasons why oral histories are so important as we look for ways to think about and imagine the past. First-person stories are a primary source that we can use to augment other kinds of primary sources, or to fill in gaps in the historical record.
Kristin Juarez: I also think it’s important, particularly for people of color, to be able to tell their own stories. We’re not always able to leave public documents with our own interpretation. It’s often applied to us.
By keeping personal documents, creating this fluidity as you’re saying, Sophia, between lineage, narrative, and generating records for ourselves is important. It allows new generations to revisit the past with new perspectives, gesturing towards the future.
Alex Jones: It’s normal for many of us, whether we’re artists or not, to not structure our lives around the idea that everything we do is going to be consequential to history or needs to be recorded and kept somewhere. I want to push back against that because artists are not the only people who keep archives. The archives have been pivotal to most of our current-day knowledge.
I’m particularly stuck on Saidiya Hartman’s latest book, Wayward Lives, which itself is what Hartman calls critical fabulation in the archive for folks who weren’t allowed to maintain archives, and yet she’s able to craft this beautiful historical narrative about the lives of Black girls and women in the early 20th century.
It’s important to write your story in your own words, if only because there is a consequence to how all of us are experiencing art every day which is that we cannot predict exactly how it will be used in the future because we are all contributing to that future in some way.