Lens-based mixed media artist and archivist Alanna Fields spoke with WMN editor Jeanette Spicer about creating Black queer dream spaces and the mundane and vulnerable intimacy in her work.
Jeanette Spicer: How do you source your images? I noticed most of the subjects seem to be male-presenting and I am curious about your choice to work with these specific images (just conceptually/compositionally/and in terms of subject).
Alanna Fields: My process of sourcing images happens in a few different ways but primarily through online sellers on sites like eBay. Depending on the project that I am working on or just my general curiosities, I curate my research terms to whatever the subject matter is that I am trying to generate. When I have been particularly interested in scenes of intimacy that exist around the home, I’ve used search terms and phrases that relate to the home space, such as “bed, sofa, kitchen, porch, bathtub.” These terms might seem on the surface mundane and non-specific in terms of queer imagery, but what they do is relate to the home space and how it is experienced and lived in.
You asked about the frequency of male-presenting subjects in the images that I work with. It is not a choice to focus on male-presenting subjects however the reality is that there is a void of imagery of black queer women and fems. It is why I cherish the images that I am able to source that feature black queer women and feminine-presenting people. I believe there are many reasons for the historical lack of visibility of black queer women in vernacular photo archives, but likely most importantly there is an erasure of legibility of black queer women who present as feminine as they are read as heterosexual in the absence of overt queering. There is also an erasure of black queer masculine-presenting women in the archive as they are often misgendered or assumed to be male and further, heterosexual. In my sum of about 300 vernacular photographs, I would say less than 50 of the images have subject who are presumably women or non-binary. In making works of mine like Come to My Garden (2021), You Lived Here Inside My Mind (2021), Untitled, Blue (2019), and Our Love Was Deeply Purple (2022), it was important to me that these works took up the most space, were exalted, and commanded the attention of the viewer.
JS: In the image, “Fireflies We Make, Bright As Stars, 2021” I am curious about how you decide what effect to create onto the image. It looks cracked in a beautiful way. I see that you use various materials like museum board, encaustic, and panels and I’d love to hear more about your decisions around that.
AF: The beautiful thing about working with found images and the original photographs is that you get a document of that photograph’s life, the hands it has traveled through, the patina in the color over time, the signatures, and the residue. I think from that you are really able to tell how a photograph was cared for, gently or if it was constantly handled by a loved one reflecting on their love. In Fireflies We Make, Bright As Stars, the source image is from a Polaroid photograph which is heavily cracked on the emulsion side. I found the latticework that the crack creates through the photograph so beautiful so I chose to leave it visible and enhance it more with repetition. In terms of my materials, I love the ability that I have to shift visibility and work in layers with the encaustic wax. Because that process requires high and concentrated heat, I need to be able to work on rigid surfaces that can withstand the heat of the hot wax during my painting process. My panels vary from wood to plexiglass.
JS: The repetitive quality of the work is powerful. At times it really creates a kaleidoscopic effect that also makes me want to see more, but also sometimes, I see less. Can you elaborate on the use of repetition and your decision to do that?
AF: That body of work, Mirages of Dreams Past aims to create a Black queer dream space that channels the viewer into past visions and recollections of intimacy and vulnerability using dreams and the dream space as a vehicle to venture through memory. Repetition is central in this work as it creates constant stages of revealing and concealing what can’t be accessed in real-time. Through kaleidoscopic framing, these works pull you in to look closer at the introspective nature of dreams and the haziness of memory. The utilization of wax to block colors of various transparencies over these archival images creates portals that visualize both distance and nearness.
JS: The images seem to be pulled from the same era (I could be wrong). If this is the case, is there a reason for choosing this particular time?
AF: These images all are dated between the late 1960s and early 1970s. I chose this particular time period as I found it to reflect a time of wider expressions of queer identity and gender presentation for Black queer people. When I look at early photographs in my archive, the images between 1890 and 1950 are much more muted in terms of queer expression. There is this hiding in plain sight that I’ve found to be prevalent during that period. The 1960s marked a time of more audacious documentation of Black queer people and queer life. In dreaming about a Black queer dream space I wanted to highlight images where there was no hiding, no masking, but instead out loud imagery of Black queer everyday life in the 1960s and 1970s.
JS: Did your practice always circulate around materials and sourced images? If not, how did it begin, and if so, what led you there?
AF: Although I’ve always had an interest in archives and vintage photographs, it wasn’t until I started thinking more about how photography archives inform the way history is documented and whose story gets told and told accurately. I quickly found that there was a significant lack of available images representing Black queer people in historical archives which pushed me to find and work with these lost and hidden images to strengthen the visibility of Black queer life from a historical context.
JS: What are you most concerned about in your art making?
AF: In my artmaking, I am most concerned with working through memory, both individual and collective memory, and how working with photography that has existed before us can reshape and counternarrative our understanding of history.