Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 2, 2018
Pellom McDaniels III, ed. Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Exh. cat. Atlanta: Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University, 2017. 98 pp. Paperback
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, September 15, 2016–May 28, 2017
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Installation view, Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch (photograph © 2016; provided by Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta)

Camille Billops and James V. Hatch are artists, educators, archivists, and activists who dedicate their lives to creating, teaching, collecting, and preserving art that reflects the experiences of the African diaspora. Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American Collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University, curated an exhibition and book based on the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives and the James V. Hatch and Camille Billops Papers housed at the Emory University library. The exhibition and catalogue, both entitled Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch, examine the lives and careers of Billops and Hatch and showcase a selection of materials from their archives. McDaniels also develops a conversation that questions the meaning of art, black art, and how the creation of art can be used as a tool to promote individual as well as collective cultural awareness, pride, and activism. These conversations arise from Billops and Hatch’s own works, which reflect social, economic, and political issues, particularly those present during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, a time when Billops and Hatch met and created some of their most influential works. These conversations are relevant today as current social and racial tensions in the United States have produced unrest reminiscent of these movements. McDaniels makes the connection between social activism and art found within Billops and Hatch’s work and explores a segment of black art that is created as a tool to highlight issues and actively engage with society to effect change.

To illuminate the materials in the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives and the James V. Hatch and Camille Billops Papers, McDaniels includes anecdotes and reflections by personal friends and associates of Billops and Hatch, as well as Emory University library staff who have encountered the collection material. The reflections of friends and art collectors Larry and Brenda Thompson show the motivations that inspired Billops and Hatch to collect materials for their own archives. The Thompsons recollect Billops and Hatch’s frustrations with a lack of recognition of black artists in mainstream art circles: “No one was interested in their efforts to provide oral histories of black artists . . . they would create their own stage and continue to do the things they loved and work in areas they were passionate” (40–41). Billops and Hatch also saw a lack of recognition in published materials on art related to the African diaspora when they began teaching at the City College of New York City in the early 1970s. During this period, in response to the influence of the Black Power Movement, African Americans became increasingly aware of the importance of learning and analyzing histories and arts found within their own cultures—information that was rarely taught in secondary schools and universities in the United States. In response to this omission of black art and artists in mainstream art, culture, and education, Billops and Hatch decided to curate their own archives, called the Hatch-Billops Collection, with a mission to collect, preserve, and educate the public about black artists and their stories. They recognized the importance of archives as not only documenting the past and more recent histories, but also as a tool for education and an exchange of ideas.

McDaniels further describes Billops and Hatch’s curation of materials related to black art and their desire to make them available to the public by providing a detailed description of the Hatch-Billops Collection as an institution. The Hatch-Billops Collection attracted a multitude of black artists and others interested in black art; it was a place where they could view, research, and discuss issues of the day that influenced the production of art. Inspired by the conversations that took place within the salon, Billops and Hatch began conducting oral histories of a variety of artists, publishing their stories in a journal of their own creation entitled Artist and Influence. McDaniels structures the book in a similar vein and includes reflections from those who were influenced by Billops and Hatch. Also included is a transcript of his own interview with them in which they discuss their careers and describe the impact of their art and archives.

McDaniels offers an understanding of the origins of Billops and Hatch’s use of art to highlight social and political issues by including a timeline that captures the moment when Billops and Hatch met and began to use their art as a tool for activism. The timeline chronicles Billops’s and Hatch’s careers in the arts beginning in 1960, when Hatch penned Fly Blackbird, a musical-play coauthored with C. Bernard Jackson, and inspired by student protests against racial discrimination. The future couple met in 1960 during the production of Fly Blackbird and began their collaborative use of art to make social and political statements. McDaniels includes this influence of societal inequalities in their work by showcasing specific materials from the archives that grapple with these issues. Fly Blackbird tackles the issue of resistance to racial discrimination by centering the play on a young woman’s participation in student protests and her father’s disapproval of her involvement. The play explores the relationship between father and daughter during a pivotal time of rebellion and upheaval of society’s status quo during the Civil Rights Movement. Among Camille Billops’s many drawings, paintings, and sculptures featured in Still Raising Hell, McDaniels chose to highlight the KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks (1993). A color-offset lithograph that mocks racism enacted by people of all races, it centers on a black-owned boutique that sells Ku Klux Klan merchandise. As described in a reflection by artist, art historian, and writer Amalia K. Amaki, Billops “used tilted planes, angles, color, contrast, proportions, comic book like appearances, and dramatic gestures to create a sense of theatrics in compressed time and space” (53). In this lithograph, Billops exposes prejudices found within black people to make the statement that racism is not limited to one racial or ethnic group. McDaniels also showcases Billops’s contributions to film, which explore a multitude of human issues beyond race relations. Billops and Hatch use the camera to capture the motivations and repercussions of personal decisions. An enlarged image of a film poster for the documentary Finding Christa (1991) examines the subject of adoption and shows Billops’ emotional experience as a mother giving up her daughter, Christa, and how the daughter came to terms with her mother’s decision. McDaniels includes such stories as a marking of their collective contribution to tackling various societal issues through the production of art.

McDaniels wrote Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch to illustrate the importance of art, archives, and their influence to challenge social mores. Camille Billops and James V. Hatch continue to collect and preserve art as well as educate the public about black art through various forums. Collecting black art has long been a part of Billops’s and Hatch’s lives; they realized early on the importance of preserving materials related to the African diaspora that were not previously seen as influential in the mainstream art world. Hatch’s dedication to collecting materials related to black theater dispels previous misconceptions of black contributions to theatrical productions; Billops’s curation of publications, ephemera, and photographs from across the diaspora led to the joint creation of the Hatch-Billops Collection, an archive in which a variety of visitors benefit from learning and engaging with materials related to black art. Billops and Hatch used their own creative energies to express issues that society chooses to ignore or deny. Many of the sculptures, films, drawings, and paintings by Billops highlight racial, social, and gender issues within the African American community and society at large, and Hatch’s plays and writings capture the essence of social and political protests. McDaniels uses the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives and the James V. Hatch and Camille Billops Papers to illustrate the ways that art and archives can be used to mobilize social change.

Afua Ferdnance
Visiting Archivist for African American Collections Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

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