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An Evening with Black Matriarch Archive’s Alkebuluan Merriweather: On Memory, Legacy, and the Black Archive.

By Ayrika Hall

Black Matriarch Archive is an ongoing collaborative digitized online archive of photography. As an archive, the photography is produced by a multitude of image-makers across time and space, with photography spanning from the nineteen-seventies to more recent photographs from our contemporary moment. The growing archive features over fifty images of black matriarchs and is open to submissions following its inaugural zine publication, Black Matriarch Archive Volume 1, this Fall. Black Matriarch Archive's founder, Alkebuluan Merriweather, has a strong zeal for honoring local and global black histories, examining their cultural impact on a global, local, and intimate scale, as well as offering commemoration and remembrance for historically neglected subjects. By recognizing the value of matriarchs as shapers and keepers of tradition and culture, Black Matriarch Archive engenders a deep reverence for the black matriarchs that help shape our lives.

Upon my initial viewing of the archive, the photos struck me with an intense sensation of nostalgia for women I had never met. Reflecting on a point that Merriweather touches on in the interview, this is because matriarchy is not solely revolved around a single genetic motherhood. Black Matriarch Archive does not address the term "matriarch" from a fixed angle. A Matriarch need not be one's own mother or grandmother, nor, as Merriweather states, a cisgender woman. Merriweather addresses this during our interview, stating, "I wouldn't be where I am without the black women in my life. And that includes family members, mentors, and teachers". Further, Merriweather touches on gender, accessibility, and legacy, noting that:

"I'm so proud of black Chicagoans and just black people in general. It's a space that is really for everyone…I keep saying the archive is just not for cisgender people. And those who watch this who aren't familiar with the term, [cisgender means] straight people. I want it to be inclusive. I want people to view this archive and be like, 'Oh, like, this reminds me of my grandma and my mom, my Nana blah, blah, blah', or someone could be like, 'Well, this reminds me of my drag mother.' And I want people to be like, 'Oh, I know of that drag mother. And I know the impact that they had, you know?' And so, I really hope this doesn't sound like I'm being narcissistic, but I'm really trying to build a legacy here at this young age.”

Throughout the interview with Merriweather, we addressed the significance of digitizing and archiving black familial archives, but more importantly, commemorating the women behind them. In countless instances, the matriarch of the family is anointed with the hefty responsibility of memorializing their family history. Many matriarchs are the prime archivists of their personal and familial records, capturing photos, passing down oral histories, safeguarding historical objects, and coordinating and arranging photographs of the family unit by designing photo albums. However, despite their commitment to conserving a legacy, matriarchs are regularly on the other side of the camera capturing the photo, leaving them excluded from the documented memory. Black Matriarch Archive turns the camera back on them, venerating our black matriarchs for not only their role in the family but for their crucial position as a keeper of memory: as an archivist.


Ayrika Hall: (03:20)

I was thinking when I looked at your archive how I really appreciate how you're digitizing these intimate family photos because me personally-- My grandma, she was sort of in charge of taking photos of the family as we grew up and also keeping them, keeping these photos and developing them and putting them in albums. And after her death, we nearly lost that entire archive. So, I think it's so important to have that, especially. And I kind of think of this in a diasporic way. I'm in this class right now, 'Contemporary Diasporic Practices,' and I realized I'm the only African American in this class. And that creates an interesting way of viewing or connecting to origin. There's sort of this loss of origin with a lot of black people, as you know, we don't necessarily know where we're 'from', and it's amplified when more local origins are lost, such as when a matriarch dies and her archive dies with her, or worse, her own story dies with her.


Alkebuluan Merriweather: (04:52)

Yeah, I can piggyback off that. So, my grandmother-- may she rest in power, recently passed away almost a month ago and I was asking my dad,  I was like, "Well, where are the photos of grandma?" And he was like, "There aren't many." And I was like, "What?" I have like one photo of her and a group of friends. My dad was able to track down another one, but when she passed away, those memories in those photos kind of went with her. And so that made me really sad because I wasn't able to show my grandmother and like flex on the 'gram and be like, "Do you see my grandmother, Gladys Mae?" And so, yeah. And this is also what I collect.


Merriweather and I also examined the importance of preserving memory and origin and how family archives are crucial for African American people who are descendants of enslaved people--people have lost much of their connection to an African cultural origin. Loss of cultural origin on a more local scale is amplified due to the fragility of an archive. Physical archives can be destroyed or lost due to displacement, natural disasters, age, travel, trauma, and distance. This loss produces a predicament for African Americans, who then experience a compounded cultural loss. When we want to connect or better understand cultural traditions, stories of family, and understanding of self, a lost personal archive can leave one with little to no access to family history. Therefore, the digitization of such a tenuous archive offers it permanence, and Black Matriarch Collective offers this immortality and visibility to not only just the family, but to an audience of people who have all been touched in one way or another by the guidance, love, and care of a black matriarch.

Black Matriarch Archive addresses topics such as memory, legacy, and access. Merriweather's inspiration for the project was in part stimulated by her time working with the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project and witnessing how incarceration contributes to the forgotten histories of many black women. Additionally, Merriweather found inspiration from the Black Joy Archive as well as the various black archives in Chicago that risk becoming forgotten histories.


Alkebuluan Merriweather: (01:12:32)

I don't know if I'll ever become a "certified archivist," but it is my dream…It is a dream of mine to educate and bring up the next generation of black cultural historians of Black Art History. Black Art History may be majors in historians. So like when I'm fifty, I want to see so many names where "so-and-so is a black art historian at this institution." I want to see so many people, a part of that time where a hundred who are in the field of art history specifically because it is still a white field.


Along with becoming forgotten histories, Merriweather and I discussed how African American history and art history, even on a broad level, become niche subcategories in a standard educational trajectory, while hyper-specific European art histories are offered in abundance in education at any level.


Alkebuluan Merriweather: (43:15)I was in visual arts. So, I did take studio classes. However, as someone who can't draw, who can't paint, or sculpt, Art History was kind of my niche. And it was really exciting for me as a Black woman to be like, "Oh my God, this is a whole field!" Never even thought about it. And so that I think we took like two art history classes, which kind of made me sad because I wanted more, like I knew who Jacob Lawrence was. I knew who Archibald Motley was, but that was like my introduction to art history…I don't see a lot of people that look like us that's included at UIC. I think my entire time there, I only met maybe like, this could be an exaggeration, but I stand by the statement. I may have been like one of five black students within our history department. And that was like over the years of like 2015 to 2019, you know? And so, I rarely see people that look like us, and the fact that having classes focusing on the art of the African diaspora isn't an option is quite upsetting. Like what if I wanted to take a whole class on Black British Art, Black, Caribbean Art? You don't get to learn about Black Cuban Art, like Haitian Art, Black Brazilian Art in Columbia.



Merriweather approaches the critical topics of access and visibility through both her studies and her archive. She is representative of the burgeoning field of black art historians, artists, writers, and archivists who are pushing for visibility, opportunity, and autonomy in how their histories are represented and distributed. Additionally, in the interview, Merriweather notes how internet archives are not the epitome of accessibility, as many people do not have regular access to the internet. Merriweather approaches this by taking steps towards distributing copies of Black Matriarch Archive Volume 1 to incarcerated people for free and to others who would like a copy at an affordable cost. She is also working with libraries to further access the zine, and translating it into multiple languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Further information on the archive and information on how to submit can be found at @blackmatriarcharchive_ on Instagram. Merriweather is doing crucial work in the field of museums, art history, and archives to commemorate, appreciate, and remember the richness of black culture, a field we love to see grow and flourish.


Ayrika Hall

University of Chicago

Master of Arts in the Humanities

Art History and Curatorial Studies

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