CEE | Center for Experimental Ethnography
Emily Carris began her presentation posing a question she first asked in England, while contemplating an image of a slave ship in a tumultuous ocean, "what does salt know?" Seven years after her work in England, Emily returned to Philadelphia to work on developing institutional space for art as scholarship, which culminated in her founding the Art Dept. Collective. Engaging with Black women’s traditions of quilting, textile work, and healing, one of Emily’s most exhibited pieces features indigo and silk matta root embroidered over the raised whip scars on a famous portrait of “Peter,” an enslaved man who escaped from a Louisiana plantation in 1868. She is following this interest in textiles and quilting to explore the concept of armor as clothing, and the powerful historical intersections of quilting and warrior culture.
Following Emily Carris's presentation, dr. Prof. Wayne Modest began by introducing his current project as the Director of the Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC). He began his talk with an insightful provocation: “What happens to a history of design if we look outside the West...or teach a history of photography starting in 1842 in Jamaica rather than one starting in 1839 in Europe?” Wayne then drew attention to the histories that remain to be written, and the voices that remain to speak, Wayne argued that ethnographic objects in these collections carry within them ways of thinking history and write history otherwise. Throughout his presentation, Wayne highlighted that decolonization also requires that we challenge the taken-for-granted assumption that museums are inherently socially useful institutions; they may or may not be such, but assumptions around the "obviousness" of their value to society serve to hold critique back about how things could be different, or transformations could be made in the role they play in society.
These presentations were followed by a lively discussion session and lunch that grappled with the complicity of scholars, academics, and artists working in institutions deeply involved in the colonial project. Several attendees highlighted how uncomfortable such institutional complicity is, and in response others spoke of the need to live with and in this discomfort rather than dismiss it: Institutional repair requires work, and part of that work can be done by laying claim to institutional spaces in the way we speak, move, and gather, and in so doing carve out spaces for other voices and other histories. Following this discussion, other smaller discussions occurred around repatriating photography, the question of archival and imagery ownership, and the revolutionary histories embedded within objects that we are obligated to preserve though we may not yet be able to hear them.
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