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Observer | The Rise of the Contemporary Artist-Historian

By Farah Abdessamad


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.