Atlanta

Still Raising Hell at Emory University

Gifted to the Stuart A. Rose Library at Emory University in Atlanta in 2002, the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives—a remarkable collection of books, ephemera, and oral histories documenting the rich histories of 19th and 20th-century African American art, art history, and theater—remain one of the most significant holdings of African American cultural achievement in the United States. The archive was initiated in 1968, during the height of the civil rights movement, while Billops and Hatch were teaching art and literature respectively at City College of New York. The pair cites the birth of their collection as “an act of necessity”: The rise in racial consciousness among African Americans pointed to the absences and gaps in Black cultural achievement and representation. Billops and Hatch understood the urgency of assembling a collection of primary materials for educational purposes, given the lack of published texts and oral histories regarding Black American art, drama, and theater.[1] While the scope of the collection is vast, containing theater programs and scripts of plays by such luminaries as Zora Neal Hurston and Amiri Baraka; long-form interviews with artists such as Elizabeth Catlett and George Wolfe; and designs, periodicals, and artworks that chart the legacy of the Black Arts Movement, the Rose Library’s recent presentation, Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James Hatch, focuses on the couple’s commitment to archiving and collecting as modes of historical and personal remembrance as well as resistance to power.

James V. Hatch and Camille Billops On the UCLA Campus, 1960; Photograph; Dimensions Unknown. Courtesy of The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University (Atlanta, GA).

James V. Hatch and Camille Billops on the UCLA campus, 1960. Courtesy of the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University (Atlanta, GA).

Curated by Pellom McDaniels III, this exhibition finds exciting ways to activate the archives by emphasizing the diversity and potency of primary documentation. From artworks to audio recordings, wall texts to films, Still Raising Hell animates the bodies, voices, spirits, and objects of those who worked before and alongside Billops and Hatch to create and express within a White-dominant society. However, it is also an exhibition documenting the constellation of artists that held powerful roles within the duo’s creative and personal life. The charming photograph of Camille Billops with the figurative painter Benny Andrews at the opening of the 1975 exhibition Bearden and Blues at Cordier & Eckstrom Gallery in New York not only captures a significant exhibition within African American art history and an intimacy between friends, but also a history of collaboration and dialogue between fellow activists. Andrews’ dedication to depicting injustice and oppression within the African American experience was nurtured and enriched by his relationships with Billops and Hatch, and they often collaborated due to Andrews’ involvement in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition—an Manhattan organization of artists founded in 1968 dedicated to demanding equal Black representation in museums, commercial galleries, arts administration, and museum purchasing committees. The photograph thus becomes a historical articulation of African American activism and art history simultaneously.

Camille Billops With Artist Benny Andrews at the Opening of the “Bearden and Blues” Exhibit, 1975; Photograph; Dimensions Unknown. Courtesy of The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University (Atlanta, GA).

Camille Billops with artist Benny Andrews at the opening of the “Bearden and Blues” exhibit, 1975. Courtesy of the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University (Atlanta, GA).

Still Raising Hell presents a dedicated partnership in which aesthetic and social concerns were grounded in the assemblage of a historical collection, yet it is Billops’ work that remains the strongest aesthetic voice within this exhibition. While her work as a filmmaker has garnered more attention (a belated notoriety within Black cinema history that many are happy to see is growing), her engagement with printmaking remains integral to her legacy in the visual arts. The delicate lithograph The KKK Boutique (1994)—a direct reference to Billops’ film made in the same year—confronts the violent intensities of racism and White supremacy in America at a moment when debates about “political correctness” were at the forefront of cultural debates. Set in a fragmented, surreal landscape, the cartoonish exaggerations of the Black and White characters enact uncomfortable poses of ambiguous aggression and mocking deference; the work testifies to the complicated contradictions at the core of American values, where religion, consumption, and history continue to shape and undermine race relations in the “free world.”

Camille Billops. The KKK Boutique, 1994; Color Offset Lithograph; Dimensions Unknown. Courtesy of The Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University (Atlanta, GA).

Camille Billops. The KKK Boutique, 1994; color offset lithograph; dimensions unknown. Courtesy of the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University (Atlanta, GA).

As an accompaniment to the installation of physical objects and materials, the Rose Library has also created an online exhibition of selected materials, a user-friendly mode of engagement that contextualizes the people, histories, and concerns that sustain this incredible collection. The temporal emphasis on ephemera and materials in the digital exhibition focuses on the period from 1965 to 1975, allowing users to engage with a complex and transitional moment in African American history as civil rights and Black power initiatives were informing and challenging one another—the most important consequence of this dialogue being the Black Arts Movement. The powerful, stylish series of black-and-white portraits of significant participants and activists within the Black Arts Movement by contemporary artist Keef Cross, all recently acquired by the archive, charge the online presentation with the faces of 20th-century Black emancipatory arts and letters, and acknowledge the archive as a continuous, open-ended, unfinished site where histories are in a constant state of becoming—open to the future.[2]

Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James Hatch is on view at the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, through May 28, 2017.

 

[1] Deb Hammacher, “Special Collection Receives Donation of Hatch-Billops Holdings,” in The Emory Report, October 28, 2002. Link: http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/erarchive/2002/October/erOct.%2028/10_28_02hatchbillops.html

[2] Keef Cross’s personal website can be accessed at the following link: http://www.keefcross.com. The link to the online exhibition of Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James Hatch, where you can view Cross’ portrait series, can be accessed at the following link: http://billops-hatch.library.emory.edu/online-exhibit.html.

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