Thomas Gage, Sr.
Toward the end of February you may have noticed a stir on twitter created by artist/writer Dwayne Rodgers, @diggswayne. In honor of Black History Month, Rodgers asked people to submit photos of their African-American ancestors for a project he was working on. The project is now well underway and OKP took the opportunity to sit down with the artist (who you may remember produced this amazing Kehinde Wiley video, which can be seen at the Jewish Museum in NYC until July 29th) to discuss his work, the impetus behind this interactive collaboration, the meaning of “The Black Vernacular,” and more.
What is “The Black Vernacular” – what’s it all about?
The Black Vernacular is a digital altar that I created in collaboration with friends from “real life,” Twitter and Facebook to memorialize our ancestors.
Tell us a bit about how you came up with the concept for this project.
The concept grew out of me thinking about history and Black history in particular. We generally celebrate history by (re)highlighting people who’s names are already widely known. Part of the purpose of this project is to shift the paradigm of the “great person” conception of history. While of course the famous should be acknowledged, I think we should also acknowledge the everyday person for their contribution to our collective legacy. Martin Luther King did not walk alone. James Brown, while remarkably original and talented, channeled a particular spirit -a culture- that he absorbed from being around people whose names we never hear publicly. But each of those people have families and friends for whom they are an intimate and integral part of their story.
Tell us about the name of the project.
The name of the project, The Black Vernacular, is quite layered. Vernacular in its primary sense is a subset, a dialect, of a larger language, but vernacular also means common or everyday. Vernacular also is a genre of photography, a way to talk about “snapshots” or amateur photography in the context of art. The name Vernacular Photography is an acknowledgement of the fact that the photographs taken every day by non-professional photographers are worthy of consideration as art objects. (Implicitly the phrase asks what is art and who makes it. It’s a step in the direction of obliterating the false boundaries between “high” and “low” art.) As a subject for study, vernacular photography, is an examination of the impulses that lead people to take pictures. It’s also a study of the aesthetics of those photographs as they are informed by the camera equipment widely available at that time, who could afford to own a camera or have a picture taken and who and what people think is worthy of a picture. Vernacular photography is very rich. It’s a lens on available technology, popular aesthetics and class –among other things. I also like that the name of the project flips the negativity surrounding the expression ‘the black vernacular’.
Tell us more about the technological aspects of the project.
I love the fact that this project came into being on the internet which is a manifestation of the vernacular–at least it is in countries where there is wide access to the web. The first call for photos was a tweet at 1am, after the idea occurred to me during a night walk. It amazes me that I could sit in the privacy of my house and type out 140 characters on my computer which are then seen by many people, most of whom I’ve never met and never will. That tweet set this project into motion. Technology allowed me to act as a catalyst for people to research, curate and digitize their family photo collection. It’s very potent to see these photos exist in digital space. And not just as random vintage photographs, but as photos sent to me from a family member with intent and love and a name and story attached to them. These pictures, some from as early as the turn of the 20th century, now exist on the web and within the web of this communal ancestral altar collaboratively built on 1s and zeros. I consider the project a kind of resurrection of the people in the images using digital technology as the foundation.
Why is it important to create an archive of African American ancestors?
I like to think of it as a living document rather than an archive. But why African American ancestors? Simple. Much of the history of black people, particularly our intimate history as shown in The Black Vernacular, is still unseen and unexplored. There aren’t a lot of engaging stories about Black people being told. And in my opinion too many contemporary Black artists, for lack of better ideas, engage stereotypes and their deconstruction as their subject matter. I want to put us at the center of a narrative which reflects the fullness of the lives we lead.
Are any of your relatives on The Black Vernacular?
Of course. My grandmother, my brother and my cousin. They had to be part of this spiritual and visual conversation. Seeing them on the Black Vernacular, next to people they never met, gives me new ways of remembering them and thinking about them. It reminds me of their differences and their commonality. Placing their image in this context allows them to communicate something new and old about themselves to me and to other people.
You have a few images of famous people in the mix here – can you tell us how those came about? Did you specifically reach out to the relatives of famous people?
I reached out to the family members of famous people I know in the same way that I reached out to the people I know who don’t have famous family members. There is a photo on The Black Vernacular of James Costen, whose grandson submitted the photo, standing over the shoulder of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a family dinner. In the context of The Black Vernacular that photo says so much: We all stand together. In the final analysis the level of renown is not what matters in a life. The fact of being is pretty grand.
Will you publish any image that gets sent in to you, or do you screen and filter the images you choose?
So far the process has been completely democratic. I trust my collaborators/co-curators to think about the images they send me and to scan them properly, etc. As far as the “quality” of the images, one of the beautiful results of this collection of images is that visually they all make each other stronger. I chose the grid as a layout because I wanted the images to play with each other visually.
It seems like this project is just getting started – how do you see it evolving?
Yes, it is just getting started. The first step in its evolution is that I would like for people to submit more and more photographs. The larger the organism the more resonant it will be. I have plans for it that we’ll discuss when they are realized. I will say that the evolution will be a further meditation on technology, photography, memory and community.
How do people submit?
People can send good scans of their images and any biographical information they’d like to provide to firstname.lastname@example.org
To see the full project, and watch it evolve, visit The Black Vernacular.