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prelude—Rooted & Returning: A Conversation with Krista Franklin

Winter 2021
Winter 2021
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Call and Respond opens with a Prelude, a conversation between guest-editor Kelly Taylor Mitchell, and Krista Franklin, outlining the aims of the issue while offering insights into our interconnected practices.

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In my role as guest editor, I spoke with Krista Franklin to discuss the intentions and frameworks of this issue. It was a welcome salve during the pandemic lockdown in Winter 2020. Our conversation below articulates the themes of this issue, highlights the intersections of our practices, and offers a transcribed and edited oral history of two contemporary working artists in dialogue.

kelly taylor mitchell (ktm): The theme of this issue is oral history as a malleable, umbrella category, which acts as a call or siren song that artists respond to. Under that umbrella, there are three buckets. One is processes and materials that are utilized to share story, spark memory, activate archive, and build new worlds. I’m especially interested in processes and materials that are informed by practices of care or reverence. The second is handmade paper as a vehicle for oral histories, bearing in mind that those histories could be speculative, innate, or inherited. With that understanding I am trying to articulate voices historically co-opted by Western canons. Finally, the third bucket is oral history as a resource for future building.

krista franklin (kf): I love it. How did you come to these three things? What stimulates you in this process and about this topic?

ktm: It was serendipitous that I was asked to guest edit this issue. The themes reflect the work that’s happening in my studio, allowing me to continue to explore oral history as a medium, as a tool, as a resource, not just as historical spoken evidence.

kf: When we think about orality we think about it as being fleeting. It is not captured in the same way that writing is. A story is written down or documented. When you have an oral tradition, the stories are passed down through conversation. How do we discuss orality in the context of handmade paper? What changes about it? How does it evolve? It is interesting because I have never thought about the oral mixed in with handmade paper but that is definitely part of what I do, without question. I want to hear more from you, grounding me in this understanding and about the materiality of the oral.

ktm: Oral histories don’t necessarily need to be something that you bear witness to. They can be inferred, imagined, dreamed, speculative. I see that happening in your work, especially thinking about The Two Thousand and Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown. A speculative approach to histories also allows one to disentangle oneself from institutions that may be wrongfully interpreted as singular beacons or bearers. Of course, you can gather histories by speaking to people without the support of an institution. However, there aren’t always those ancestors that you can pick up the phone and call, there aren’t always ancestors that you even know their phone number; especially for Black people, people of color, and queer folks. There’s so much power in imagining who these people are, could have been, or will be, and creating work that speaks back to or acts as an offering to those stories. A sort of call and response. I’m interested in that dynamic in my work and recently came to understand that my work is about ancestor worship.

kf: How did you come to that understanding?

ktm: I was led to research of autonomous Black communities because of my family’s history in The Great Dismal Swamp, the largest Maroon colony in The United States. I identified other spaces where autonomy operates in the African Diaspora in the past, present, or an imagined context. One big through line is the act of masking which we see in your series We Wear The Mask. I could identify this through line amongst different communities and/or cultural contexts that are tied to the African Diaspora. Egungun in Yoruba/West African traditions, Candomblé in Bahia, Hoodoo in the American South. I didn’t see myself in those histories as clearly as I see myself in the history of the Great Dismal Swamp. I felt unnecessarily beholden to the Western approach to history that wants us to have relatively finite information for how we track, document, and identify history—an approach that legitimizes and erases. This approach led to fear and hesitancy in the way I would talk about my work. In a studio visit with Daricia Mia DeMarr, a contributor to this issue, I communicated this fear. She affirmed that my looking to these communities where I see commonality, relationship, and kinship is an intuitive path that can help me better understand what I am doing as an extension of ancestor worship, and its many iterations across the African Diaspora.

kf: I’m intrigued by this idea that you’re talking about with appropriation because my whole practice is kind of about appropriation. I try to be cautious and respectful in all cases when I am taking on different cultures, ideas, practices, or belief systems. I also believe there are incredible through lines and overlaps between all of our stories. It is hard to sometimes figure out—are you appropriating something or are you revealing another part of yourself that you had never talked about, accessed before, or had the language for prior to encountering this other cultural articulation?

ktm: I love the language of “revealing.” Talking about appropriation makes me think about memory, archive, and those abaca pieces where you have Black cultural icons and remnants of the Black every day, from Eddie Murphy to Muhammad Ali, and cowrie shells to fro pics. I am curious if you think about this work as building an archive?

kf: Those pieces you’re referring to were actually a part of a series I created around 2010 titled The Afrimerican Archive, so I was definitely beginning there to merge notions of the archive, the Black experience, and handmade paper. I again intentionally deployed that idea in take root among the stars.—which is an ongoing project, probably a lifelong project. The goal was for me to capture, contain, or hold this archive of legacies around Black futurisms. Writings, images, album covers, all of that. I wanted to pull in these materials and capture them. The abaca becomes a part of an entombing process, allowing me to hold something in there for good. I was really trying to use that project to reveal and show that this idea of “Afrofuturism” is very old, it’s not new, we just put a name on it in the nineties. I wanted to show this history of Black folks engaging with space, futurity, technology, ideas around the speculative, the magical, and the ecstatic.

ktm: You mention handmade paper as an ideal vehicle for archive building; how do you consider the papermaking process and craft-based legacies operating in your work?

kf: I’m still developing my relationship with handmade paper. I am not a traditionalist about anything. My relationship with the handmade is an extension of all aspects of my art practice; it’s the sensual. It’s the water. It’s the sound. It’s the [mimics pulling a sheet]. It’s the sensuality of moving around in the paper studio and the sensuality of the pulp, I love paper in the wet. I think when it is in the wet it is in its most beautiful form, I am often [laughs] underwhelmed when it dries.

ktm: I’d love for us to talk about water; I think it’s important to note its significance. The other thing that I’m hearing from you that I’d love to talk more about is this idea of labor and how it has value in your practice.

kf: Let’s talk about all of those things. I am also thinking about Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake...

ktm: I couldn’t emphasize the importance of that text enough; I recently re-read it with my “Materials & Concepts” course at Spelman College.

kf: I am thinking about writings by Black women scholars around water and sites of water. The Transatlantic Slave Trade is this incredible waterbased site of horror, of transformation, of death, of rape. The water is filled too with animals, blood, sea life, seamen/semen, salt. It’s just so potent. When I think about water I am thinking about religious and spiritual connections with water, like baptisms in lakes and rivers. It is also this site of spiritual transformations where you can wash away your sins or be reborn. It’s an alternate womb site. There is a comfort in that. Even when it’s horrific or grotesque. I’m in love with water and do a lot of water rituals. My relationship with handmade paper is through water and pulp. When you say something is handmade paper, people often don’t really know what you’re talking about. They don’t know the different steps that you had to go through, how long it took you to create something. It’s a sadness for me in a way because I want the labor to be transparent.

ktm: Something that stands out for me here is the legacy of invisible labor, a load so many Black women bear, as do so many others often rendered invisible.

kf: That is really very exciting to me for a few reasons because when we think about labor, domestic physical labor in particular, we often think about women—“women’s work.” One of the things that was very keen to me when I went into book and paper was how it ties in with women’s work. The craft world has always been tied in with women’s labor, right? I was completely turned on by that.

ktm: Craft-based knowledge is often passed down and shared by family and community. That is something that feels so important to acknowledge and center. I’m most interested in these processes or ways of working that were passed on to me by my grandmother, or my mother.

kf: I love that about your practice, that things were passed down from your matriarchs. That’s also ritual, right? When you’re being taught by your grandmother or your mother, even our fathers, grandfathers, uncles, aunties, all of them! When they’re showing you how to do something, they’re often telling you stories about how they learned it, who taught them. So, you have all of this information passing that’s happening in that moment of teaching.

ktm: Krista, these ideas of “women’s work” and ritual, there’s often a physicality to these experiences. How are you thinking about the body in your work?

kf: A word that came up in a lot of my studies when I was working on The Two Thousand and Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown was “residue” and that really excited me. My papermaking mentor Melissa Potter was talking about the pieces as residue, bodily residue. I started to go deeper, what does residue mean? Especially in relation to the body, we shed skin, hair, uterine linings. Handmade paper becomes a container of residue, a container of history, a recording of some shape-shifting that occurred.

ktm: Record keeping makes me think about Howardena Pindell, an artist whom I associate with building personal and cultural archives. There are these different types of record keeping, the inactive shedding, the things that happen simply because you are alive. They happen without your consent, whereas these other acts of residue containment that you’re doing utilize speculative oral histories that you’re developing. In doing so, you create a resource of your own design that someone else can then look back on as an archive.

kf: I love that conversation right there. Portal is very important here, which is a word that you use about your own work, that I really want you to talk more about. Also, the organic was very important to me when thinking about papermaking, in particular, the Naima Brown project. Plant life, human life, the fact that we’re all a part of this natural world and we all go through these processes of living and dying, shedding and rebirthing. I come from the school of thought that in order to have a good future, you have to know the past. You have to look at it, especially if it’s unpleasant. Especially if it’s something that horrifies you. It’s in your damn DNA! You will repeat it if you do not look it right in the eye, analyze it, and figure out where it came from, take it apart, and figure out where it’s leading you.

ktm: What I am calling portals in my work are life-sized and larger textile pieces, that are adorned with popcorn, North Carolina peanuts, pearls, or black-eyed peas—charged materials. They reference the legacy of talismans, and amulets, African Brazilian mandigas. The principle is that objects have the capacity to protect you from harm and yield good. I activate the portals in private ritual or performance by wearing my hand-embroidered and beaded masks. Which I have started calling conduits because the mask serves as an entry point to an ancestral force. I am trying, in that ritual space, to be comfortable with the reality that every action does not result in a tangible outcome. Often, when I talk about this work I am asked what I do in this privacy, what is the outcome...

kf: You’re having a transformation, there is something that’s happening and it’s invisible to them. It’s hidden in this mask. They cannot see the transformation that’s happening to you internally, spiritually, emotionally, when new vistas of understanding are happening inside of your mind, that can’t be tracked, that can’t be witnessed by the human eye. This also brings us back to invisible labor and Black interiority. These are spiritual devices, spiritual technologies, that we see across the African Diaspora with carved statuettes and protective amulets that we activate to work on our behalf.

ktm: These practices speak to a very human desire to self-actualize, to not be a passive participant in your own story. It’s encouraging, important, and empowering especially as this relates to Black people who are so often seen as not in control of their story, trajectory, or identity. This is a good segue to talk more directly about the We Wear The Mask series.

kf: It was about surrealism, and [I] had really started to focus my energy thinking about Afro-surrealism. I was also thinking about how women in general, Black women in particular, are always pitched as monstrous and tricky, the one at fault. I was like, let me go ahead and make these really formidable women. I’m gonna make them look grotesque, surreal, and beautiful. All of the bodies in this series are actually from Jet magazine’s “Beauty of the Week,” reconstructed. I wanted them to be the iconic pinup girls in their physical posing; I wanted them to be sensual, seductive, and all of the things that they profess Black women to be. This is the deep beginning of making collages on my own paper, from the foundation up. Some of them have a watermark in them, which is my Sankofa watermark—it was really about that. I took the title from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.” [He and I] are both from Dayton, Ohio, and I grew up thinking a lot about Dunbar. And [he’s right], we do wear the mask all the time.

ktm: Sankofa is a comforting blanket to protect this conversation, a form of call and response rooted in the African Diaspora that communicates the importance of returning to, the strength in utilizing our roots to build futures, the understanding that what is lost, left behind, or long forgotten can be reclaimed, recycled, and revered.

Krista Franklin, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, 2011, 28 x 17 1/2 inches, collage, bobby pins, and synthetic hair in handmade paper. All photos courtesy of the artists unless otherwise noted.

Krista Franklin, detail of The Two Thousand & Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, 2013, dimensions variable, installation with sound, synthetic hair, handmade paper, mixed media, at Columbia College Chicago, Center for Book & Paper, 2013.

Krista Franklin, from The Two Thousand & Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, 2012, 10 x 16 inches, synthetic hair, feathers, and collage in handmade paper.

Krista Franklin, Power Object, 2011, 17 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches, Afropick in handmade paper.

Krista Franklin, Eddie in Abaca, 2012, 11 x 8. inches, collage in handmade paper.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Black & Blue Collar, 2021, 42 x 34 inches, handmade pigmented cotton paper, mesh, grommets, thread, repurposed textile, found crystals.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Mask #8, 2021, 5 x 8 inches, hand-embroidered and beaded mask.

Krista Franklin, Chicken Bones & Feathers, 2012, 20 x 16 inches, cyanotype on handmade paper with feather inclusions.

Krista Franklin, from The Two Thousand & Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, 2012, 30 x 22 inches, synthetic hair and mixed media in handmade paper.

Krista Franklin, We Wear the Mask II, 2014, 19. x 16 inches, collage on handmade paper.

Krista Franklin, We Wear the Mask III, 2014, 19. x 16 inches, collage on handmade paper.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Mask #6 and Braided Bowl, 2021, mask: 5 x 8. inches, bowl: 12 inch diameter, hand-embroidered and beaded mask hung on hand-build-and-braid clay bowl.