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A few questions for Claudrena Harold
The Professor of History at University of Virginia speaks on her multidisciplinary work and experiencing art online
In this interview with Claudrena N. Harold, Professor of African American Studies, African Studies and History at University of Virginia, we discuss her own academic and artistic work in addition to the nuances of experiencing art in the era of social distancing. Harold’s major project is a multimedia initiative titled Black Fire, which includes films co-directed with her colleague Kevin Jerome Everson that have screened at premier institutions all over the world. Professor Harold shares her thoughts on monuments and counter-monument struggles, particularly in relation to Kara Walker’s public installation Fons Americanus, which is currently showing on EXPOBLVD as an interactive 360 degree map.
With this great shift online in 2020, have you been avoiding screens as much as possible or do you normally explore art and culture on your devices?
Before the virtual shift, it was common for me to watch films on my smartphone, iPad or laptop. However, when a film moved me deeply, I would go into the office and watch it on a big screen. That was my experience with Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death. The shift online has provided me with the opportunity to see more films and talks. And that’s been awesome. At the same time, I’m somewhat conflicted about certain aspects of the virtual experience.
What, if anything, is lost when experiencing art in isolation from community is a question that weighed heavily on my mind during the 48-hour live streaming of Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death. Something about the internet’s instant commentary without quiet introspection, along with critics’ tendency to focus solely on the film’s politics rather than its artistry, troubled me. Perhaps my discomfort was also rooted in concerns about the viewing experience. Seeing Love Is the Message at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2017 left me speechless. Not just because of the film’s aesthetic qualities and political relevance but also because of its ability to forge bonds of solidarity, almost instantaneously, among those in the exhibition space. Upon exiting the museum our glances and head nods confirmed Jafa’s brilliance and the nature of US racial politics. Watching the film on a mobile device or 15-inch computer screen is not the same experience.
There is another issue with some virtual screenings. Putting your work ‘out there’ without curation or explanation is complicated. Frequently when sending University of Virginia alumnae links to our films, I include the disclaimer: ‘This is not a documentary.’ There is a way in which my professional status as a historian shapes the viewer’s expectations. And I want the work to be enjoyed and evaluated based on our artistic intent rather than preconceived notions of what a film collaboration involving a historian might look like or contain.
How do you gauge the current moment, with the charged discourse and actions around monuments and counter-monuments?
Over the past four years, a significant amount of my time as a teacher, researcher and resident of Charlottesville, Virginia has been spent thinking about the politics of history and the politics of commemoration. Starting in 2016, the city became the site of intense debates over two equestrian monuments to Confederates Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Under the guise of protecting their heritage, white supremacists engaged in violent attacks against anti-racist counter-protesters, resulting in an explosion of violence during the summer of 2017. The calls for the removal of Confederate monuments reflect the younger generation’s commitment to not simply confronting the racist legacy of this settler nation-state but also democratizing public space. These Confederate monuments and statues — many of which were constructed during the Jim Crow era and sought to visually reinforce not only the Lost Cause narrative but the white supremacist political order — have no place in the public square. These calls for a transformation of the public landscape are important; however, if we are to experience full human flourishing, we must also address the problems of the unequal distribution of wealth, militarism, the problem of mass incarceration, inadequate funding of educational and cultural instititutions and the devastating environmental consequences of the Anthropocene.
What unique insight does this 360 degree map of Fons Americanus offer you into Kara Walker's public installation?
The spatial relationship between the public installation and the people reminds us how something (slavery) can be so central yet invisible, towering yet marginal. Spatial and temporal entrapment. Faces at the bottom of the well. Epistemic rupture. These terms and concepts immediately sprang to mind upon my first encounter with Kara Walker’s installation. The Shell Grotto is haunting. It takes me back to a passage from Olaudah Equino’s slave narrative, in which he poses a question to a fellow captive during the Middle Passage: ‘What was to be done with us?’ The horror of not knowing combined with the horror of the vast sea. That’s what I see and feel when observing the Shell Grotto.
As a practicing artist and as an academic, what are your particular responsibilities when dealing with history and historical material?
Scholars, including historians, imagine. And like artists, they often engage in what Toni Morrison calls literary archaeology: ‘On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.’ The film collaborations with Kevin Jerome Everson and my ‘scholarly work’ all emerge from the same soil. Whether writing a book on the history of gospel in the post-Civil Rights era or completing a film on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973 visit to Charlottesville, memory and imagination weighs heavily in my effort to create meaningful work. Archival silences. Unresolved questions. These things no longer bother me. I’ve learned to deal with the omissions and contradictions in the historical record and find meaning in them. That requires imagination — and working in film has helped strengthen that necessary mental muscle.