Mining the Archive
Lewis Watts’s life’s work, which includes his photography, art, research, and curatorial talents, has drawn attention to the lives and histories of the African diaspora around the world. Two of his largest projects resulted in beautiful monographs/books that portray the lives of African Americans in the San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era and the music and culture of New Orleans. For this project, he traveled to the Amistad Center and photographed rare books.
Now that he is Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he has dedicated his time to a unique project called Mining the Archive. I asked Watts how this began. “I have always been interested in historical visual material. When I found a first edition copy of the book by Frederick Douglas in the office of my friend William Frank Mitchell at the Amistad Center for Art and Culture in Hartford, I knew that I had to do a residency there to look through and photograph the extensive collection and I was able to do so on multiple occasions. Mining the Archive describes the search through mostly older literature and ephemera. I’m interested in the content and the patina that reflects time and intent.”
For Mining the Archives, Watts traveled around the country to visit other African American archives which include the African American Library in Oakland, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and Tulane University in New Orleans. This culminated in stunning and unique portraits that highlight the impact of these objects/books on the history of African Americans in the US. Whether it is cartoons, advertisements, or books degrading African Americans, or early publications by African American writers, the artwork feels prescient – anticipating the cultural dialogue in this historical moment. Watts’ investigation of the archives is ongoing.
We are fortunate and delighted to have Lewis Watts exhibition launch our “Archives as Muse: A Harlem Storytelling Project” website. This is a project created by the MFA Program in Creative Writing at CCNY to encourage, inform, educate and inspire our students and neighbors to use the “archives.” This website will also illustrate how collaborations between educators and students in the archives culminate in the writer and artists’ creative work. In the coming weeks, we will post a longer video interview with Watts. He will discuss this exhibition and the timely conversation it has initiated. Please join our email list for the launch of our video interview with Watts.
Michelle Y. Valladares
Exhibited with the permission of the artist.