The Archives of Black Women Artists (Part One), featuring Sierra King

By Anicka Austin, SGA Blog Contributor and Visiting Archivist for the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers
Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book library

Earlier this year, Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences offered eight artists studio residencies at its Cross-Pollination Art Lab. The Hambidge Center regularly provides residencies on its 600-acre sanctuary in North Georgia and naturally has strong ties to Atlanta through the artists who live in the city and the Center’s donors.

Two of the artists, Jasmine Williams and Sierra King, used their time at the Lab focused on collaborative artmaking and exploring “the concept of archiving in real-time.” They worked parallel to each other, and King documented Williams’ creative process. King also installed “THROUGHLINE”, a physical timeline showing the intersections of their relationship from when their parents met to more recent projects like Williams’ Adult Swim Mural.

Photos of Jasmine Williams and Sierra King

The artists, no strangers to working together, began their parallel journey in middle school.

King: 

While we haven’t always been “Artists”, we have always been friends. Passing notes to each other in the hallway, connecting online at the beginning ages of social media and running into each other at music events. As both of our practices grew, we spent a lot of time in the studio together up until 2019.

Jasmine Williams, photographed by Sierra King

King is an archivist. Initially, her archival work of Black women artists began as an exploration in validation. For Black artists, having our work “validated” by its inclusion in an institution’s archival collection seems to be a step forward. She pushes back on that narrative now, saying, “there’s enough value in our work inherently. It doesn’t have to be validated by an institution.” There are many pivotal events or people in history who are not recognized on an institutional level. In our phone conversation, she uses the example of political actions, like protests, saying, “There are hundreds of thousands of Black people behind the front lines. Everyone has a story that deserves to be told.”

King’s archival history began with her family.

King:

I like to say that my first experience with the archives as a child was when I walked into my Grandmother’s living room. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with photographs of family, friends and babies that she had taken care of and watched grow up. While it wasn’t a formal institution, I look back on that memory as one that always required me to think deeply about the history of who my people were and our narratives.

King’s Grandfather, Horace Walter Stephens Jr., was one of the only African-American boy scout troop leaders in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s. He took troops around the world to locations where Buffalo Soldiers traveled, including Alaska and Ghana.  Sierra and her family are in the appraisal process with her Grandfather’s belongings which include sports memorabilia, rare books, Ebony and Jet magazines, and a collection of Black Barbies.

King says, “the beauty of personal archives is that you still live with them.”

Sierra King, age 7 or 8, with Barbie collection

Her words remind me of an Archiving the Black Web National Forum session that featured archivists’ web-based storytelling practices. Camille Lawrence, founder of Black Beauty Archives and one of the panelists, used the example of curating exhibitions in barber shops and beauty salons to underscore the importance of context when displaying archival material. The salon, as a cultural heritage institution, puts the material in the hands of those who directly relate to it. Additionally, environmental context illuminates nuances, allowing for greater understanding of the culture by those who are being introduced to it for the first time.

King:

 I was able to recognize that it [archival work] was something that I have been doing as a photographer all along. I was documenting Black Women Artists, like Jasmine in the Atlanta arts community as I went to exhibitions, studio visits and just creating relationships with them…. I learned that while documenting the practice is important, creating a trusting relationship to be present to document the more private moments is even more invaluable.

King’s creative process as a photographer has influenced her archival work. Part of her ethos in documenting the world around her comes from a desire to go out and life a full life, to create relationships and moments that nourish her. Shifting between mediums allows her to bring those living conversations into her work. She highlights her experiences and experiences of those around her through essays and curating exhibitions. She asks of viewers of the work, “Do you have any memories entangled in this? Do you see yourself in this history?”

Top: Sierra King, archival installation; Bottom: Sierra King, Mint Gallery installation

Within this is the drive towards sharing information about archival processes with Black women artists.

King: 

My mission for documenting, preserving and archiving the livelihoods of Black Women Artists has evolved and expanded. It is centered on providing them with the tools, knowledge and resources so that they can protect not only their personal narrative but also their career narrative. 

It has allowed me to also evolve and expand as an artist. It has informed where I want to take my own artistic practice and has me actively thinking about how I want to shape and present my narrative to the world. Most importantly it has allowed me to stand firm to say, “This is what my work as an archival installation / veneration / remembrance looks like.” 

I think the mission is something that archivists have always been striving towards and is received well because I am emphasizing that Black Women Artists be proactive and active in their archival processes while they are able to make the necessary choices.

Personal archives are at the heart of King’s work, even when the collection is donated to an institution. In 2017, King worked with Leigh Raiford and a project team on Kathleen Cleavers papers, which are now part of Rose Library collections.

Photos from Kathleen Cleaver papers, process photographed by Sierra King

King continues to reflect deeply on the role of archives in the lives of Black women artists. She was awarded the National Black Arts Festival Micro Grant, which she will use to continue to document Black women artists. She is currently working with Rosa Duffy at For Keeps! Black and Rare Classic Books designing an archival residency that will allow her time and space to take inventory and showcase some smaller archival installations. She will also be returning to the Hambidge Center in November for a creative residency, where she is looking to install one of her largest installations to date.For an example of her curatorial work, you can find documentation of Here. There. Everywhere, an exhibition King curated for Mint Gallery in 2020 on Google Arts and Culture Atlanta: Bold and Beautiful.

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