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BmoreArt’s Picks: February 8-14

Photographer SHAN Wallace has a habit of making sure that the portraits she takes end up in her subjects’ hands. Journalist Lawrence Burney shares and writes about Baltimore history, often through its music. Having known and worked with both Wallace and Burney for several years, curator and artist Ginevra Shay was deeply impacted by the generosity of their work and wanted to support them in an innovative and generative way. “I was thinking about how committed SHAN and Lawrence are to people in Baltimore,” Shay says.

In collaboration with Wallace and Burney, Shay developed Baltimore Living Archives, a year-long residency hosted jointly by the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the SNF Parkway Theater. The residency, currently organized by Parkway programming consultant Mia Smith, gives artists access to the Pratt’s archives as well as the Parkway’s resources, along with the ability to publicly present their research. Both artists are recording oral histories during the project, which enables the creators to simultaneously deepen their practices and bring community members into the fold, to have their voices heard and be welded into a record of Black Baltimore history. 

Baltimore Living Archives was developed with care and clarity, with the idea that resources should be allocated to Baltimore denizens and that artists/archivists should have financial support for their research. Working for three years as The Contemporary’s artistic director, Shay witnessed the impact of an institution giving artists material resources to push their work further. Curating exhibitions at The Contemporary, working in archives at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Afro-American Newspaper, and researching at the Enoch Pratt Library and the Maryland Historical Society reified for Shay the fact that archives are both critical and under-utilized. “I just came to a realization that archives were vital and important to Baltimore’s culture and history, and any place’s culture and history, and they need to become accessible,” Shay says. “People need to know that they’re there, that they’re a resource for them, that they can engage with them, that they are for them.”

 

SHAN Wallace presenting work at the Parkway

At the library, the artists in residence have their own studio space, and they hold office hours where they do research and engage with people who sign up to participate. The project’s goal is to open the archives not just for the resident artists, but for the city as well. “[The Pratt has] letters from F. Scott Fitzgerald in their vault, they have secret videos of Tupac Shakur when he was a high school student at the Baltimore School for the Arts,” Shay says. “They also have a huge archive of African American film and video that I’ve never seen. And they recently did this renovation; they now have digitization services.”

The Parkway Theater, for which Shay has done grant writing and development consulting for the past few years, is the BLA residency’s other anchoring institution. It will host Burney’s and Wallace’s work and public programs during the year through presentations, talks, and screenings, as well as access to their full digitized library of film. Shay secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant to fund the residency, along with funding from the Anonymous Foundation, which pays the artists a part-time stipend, funds local travel, and gives them a project budget. “There aren’t a lot of residency programs right now [in Baltimore], and the ones that exist don’t provide financial support on top of space, which is so critical,” Shay says. 

This was also the Parkway’s first federal grant—a new level for the organization to support the practices of Baltimore-based artists who incorporate this city into their work. “Now there’s this whole element of a project that’s thinking about how to further empower denizens,” Shay says. “I use that word instead of ‘citizens’ because it encompasses anyone that lives within the area, no matter what status.” At the moment, the project is only funded through this year; potential future iterations of BLA depend on funding. 

Wallace and Burney designed and defined how they wanted to spend their time in residence, both independently and with the public through free participatory projects available to whoever wants to sign up. The artists will use the time and space to further develop their own archive practices that are already so deeply rooted in community.

 

"Portraits of Black Baltimore" at the Enoch Pratt
Lawrence Burney, photo by SHAN Wallace

With his zine and online platform True Laurels, and in writing for numerous publications, Burney has been documenting Black Baltimore music, history, nightlife, and culture for nearly ten years. Burney’s innate ability to eye talent in this city, to write about and contextualize rap music from here, is accompanied by his ability to historicize unique characters in local culture. Take, for example, his beautiful essay on Arabbers that appeared in Black Futures or his Black Baltimore History Instagram page. 

While he is “open to absorbing anything that comes out of the city,” he says, he’s also always looking around the whole region. “Between Baltimore, P.G. County, Silver Spring, DC, all throughout Virginia—I’m always nerding out about the things coming up.” Part of his research will explore the migratory nature of Black people from the south to the east coast. Every Wednesday from February through May, with the program How Did We Get Here?, Burney will welcome Baltimore residents to the Enoch Pratt’s Central branch to speak about how they or their families from generations past ended up in the Baltimore area. 

“Between here and Virginia, this cluster of areas has a lot of ancestral ties to each other,” Burney says. “A lot of our people come from Virginia, North Carolina. So I always try to keep that in mind while I’m doing my work and just trying to understand what was going on there too, because there’s a lot of cultural overlap.” 

Burney’s research will also expand on local nightlife of the past, such as iconic clubs Odell’s and the Paradox. He particularly wants to hear from people in the scene who are older than he is (in his early 30s), especially given the rate at which nightlife changes in this town. “I’m not super concerned with talking to people in my age range who have experienced the same nightlife that I experienced. I’m also interested in who experienced something that I didn’t,” he says, adding that he hopes to hear from people involved in local nightlife and music scenes between the 1960s and now. 

Additionally, Burney is working on a documentary about Baltimore rappers trying to succeed in a city that’s not considered a hub for the world of rap music. With all this creative work, Burney is interested in expanding his tools for research and his ability to share with the public. Though his background is in writing about music locally, once he moved up to writing and editing for bigger publications like VICE and The Fader, he picked up some documentary production skills. “That’s where the Parkway comes into play,” he says. The Parkway has connected him with possible funding sources, and the residency pays him for his time to complete projects, which includes the production of any art or film. 

 

Photo by SHAN Wallace
SHAN Wallace

As a photographer, director, and collagist who also does journalistic and documentary work, Wallace’s multidisciplinary practice is well-suited for this residency. Her images highlight the beauty of the sacred and mundane moments of everyday Black life while also challenging the oppression and mistreatment of Black people throughout the diaspora. Her love for her hometown is the backdrop of her ever-evolving artistic practice. 

Wallace’s project will focus on uplifting the voices of Black Baltimoreans with portrait sessions and storytelling, including analyzing and identifying people and places from the I. Henry Photo Project. Wallace’s work has an additional emphasis on queer communities; with “The Lesbian Section,” she brings to the fore a community that is often overlooked and ignored historically. During Wallace’s open hours, lesbians are invited to bring in personal photographs and other media for Wallace to scan and archive. There’s also an oral history component to record their stories and experiences. Wallace makes it clear that all of her programs are “open for everyone. [The Lesbian Section] project was more of a personal one, as someone who is a Black lesbian… This was a way to prioritize lesbians, their experiences, who they are, the space that they take up.”

All the components of Wallace’s project will go into the Pratt’s permanent collection, so she’s presently focused on “how to shape programming that is accommodating and also eventful and fun,” and that also serves the community beyond her time in residence.

Wallace just received a Ruby Grant for a documentary project about gay and lesbian nightlife in Baltimore from 2000 to now, which will supplement the research she does during her BLA residency. “I grew up going to lesbian parties and clubs and bars from a very early age,” Wallace says. She credits her older sister (who looks like her twin) for letting her use her ID to get around the city and enter parties. 

“The lesbian and gay scene raised me,” Wallace says. “Outside of basketball, it was the first time I felt a part of a community. I was able to figure out my sensuality, also my sexuality… As someone who is trying to commit a lot of their work and practice to lesbians, the film [will be a way] to tell the story of Baltimore gay and lesbian nightlife, during a time where the binaries existed a lot more.”

Wallace will also use her time to revisit a documentary film project she began in 2019 about the Detroit Wall with the Annenberg Space of Photography, using the Parkway as a space to explore and present ideas and extra footage from the film. 

 

Photo by I. Henry Phillips, Sr., courtesy of Webster Phillips III

The Baltimore Living Archives project fulfills a dual purpose of fostering artists’ creative practices and engaging others to recognize their ability to record and archive their own legacy. With the support of the Parkway and the Pratt, the project allows Wallace and Burney to activate in ways that they may not have been able to before. It is not a stretch to imagine that individuals will enter these spaces who may have never set foot in them before, that there might be a person who tells a story that has never been told that will then be recorded in the archives of Baltimore history. The residency provides time and space to delve fully into research, and since its start, both artists have felt the weight of just having time to research and the luxury of a dedicated space to read, absorb, and learn.

The magnitude of the archives has already been tremendously inspiring and overwhelming in a good way for Wallace. “I spend most of my time reading,” she says. “There’s just so much available. I realized that there’s a lot that the library does have to offer everyone—and I have a residency here, but everything I have available, everyone else has available as well.” 

Burney has always enjoyed learning about history and how it affects the present, but he became obsessed with the practice of archival research in 2016. “I saw that I had a gap to be filled when it came to Black Baltimore history,” he says. “My practice is super research-heavy. I’m really trying to contextualize what I learn when I’m digging for stuff.”

BLA is ongoing through December of 2022, with multiple programs and event dates to be announced in the next few months along with a final presentation later this year. Burney and Wallace have each spent over a decade documenting Baltimore stories in their own brilliant ways, often without significant institutional support, and yet leaving a phenomenal impression.

The BLA project marks the first time that either the Parkway or the Pratt has had an artist in residence, Shay says, and it makes obvious the monumental impact of Wallace and Burney’s tireless work. “This just goes to show that Black Baltimore artists are doing innovative work that needs to be supported on a national level. [Wallace and Burney,] they’ve believed in themselves, in their city, unwaveringly,” Shay says. “This is the kind of work and the kind of artists that need to be supported without restriction and without limitation, to see what’s possible if they are given time, space, and money, which is something that hardly ever happens in the United States.”

Equally important, this project allows the public to step into the living laboratories of Wallace and Burney, who are giving time and energy to encourage Baltimore to tell its own stories. Storytelling is integral to our understanding of a place—and storytelling that empowers the subject to define their own narrative is crucial.

 

Find more info on the Baltimore Living Archives project and programming at the Parkway’s website.

 

Images courtesy Ginevra Shay and SHAN Wallace

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