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Exploring Play and Poetry within Archival Art

Academic Essay, 2019, 

Sabancı University, İstanbul, Turkey


This paper explores how play and poetry find a place within the contemporary archival artistic practices that critique the dominant modes of constructing history, identity and memory. This text will draw up on the fictional photographic archive, Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive, to explore the elements of play and poetry within the archival form and modes. By analyzing this work, it is aimed to question the objectivity of photographic document that is often used as a basis in knowledge production.


In a 2004 article, curator and critic Hal Foster have pegged the term archival impulse to reference the growing interest of contemporary artists towards archival forms and modes. Later in 2008 an exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fewer: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art has constituted a valuable point for the further exploration of this tendency, thinking this new archival art in terms of history and narrative construction. In his catalogue text for the exhibition Enwezor have mentioned archive ‘as an active, regulatory discursive system’ signaling the urgency of an inquiry into the archive at this age which the systems governing the knowledge disseminating within society are being questioned extensively. The concept of archive here does not only involve an ensemble of documents but also bears links with the modes of collecting, ordering, categorizing and contextualizing that evoke rather objective, rational, systematic and authoritative approaches.

On the opposite end of this spectrum, one can find subjective, irrational, irregular and horizontal approaches that are some qualities of the notion, play. The Oxford Dictionary defines play as; to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose and/or to engage in imaginative pretense. Although reflecting the common understanding of play in our time, this definition lacks to appreciate the layers of meaning and tradition behind this simple word. J. Huizinga in his 1949 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, have unveiled the constitutive power of play in the formation of civilization, offering a perspective that takes play out of its non-sense, inefficient, childish connotations. In this work, through a cross-cultural examination the writer explores how the widely-accepted fun and primitive qualities of play lie at the base of the serious, constitutive domains in society, such as governance and law. “In acknowledging play you acknowledge mind...” (pg. 3) states Huizinga, leading us to poetry that is born from the “play-ground of the mind” and has a culture-making function alongside with play.

In this essay I will explore elements of play and poetry within the archival forms and modes used in contemporary artistic production. Focusing on Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive that is a completely fictive archive constituted through the manipulation of photography’s documentation value, the authority of photographic document will remain under examination, using objectivity as an auxiliary keyword.

Play, Imagination and an Imaginary Archive

According to Huizinga play has a significant function in the making of culture and civilization. He suggests to ‘consider play in its manifold concrete forms as itself a social construction.’ Its culture making capacity is partly based on manipulation of images and imagination. In a similar sense, poetry also has a play quality, and it works with the aid of imagination, such as myths. It is not only aesthetic but have historically taken social functions such as rituals, entertainment, prophecy and competition.

The Fae Richards Photo Archive, resulted from the collaboration of artist Zoe Leonard and film maker Cheryl Dunye between 1993 and 1996, is a collection of fictional documents of a fictional character. The character, Fae Richards, aka The Watermelon Woman, is an African- American lesbian actress and singer from 1920’s to 1970’s. Starting with Dunye’s script named The Watermelon Woman, the lack of archival material about African-American and lesbian actresses involved in American cinema and thus their lack of representation in history has paved the way for constructing the story of such a character. In a 1993 interview Dunye have mentioned the construction of this imaginary archive as part necessity, part invention (Bryan-Wilson & Dunye, 2013). The lack of archival material about a character that exists out of the dominant norms of society (white and heterosexual) points out to the gaps in history in which feminist and queer accounts have been revealing and revisiting for the last decades. This approach however contains the very likely possibility of the existence of a lesbian, African-American actress, and the necessity to make a fictional archive rather than an archive based on authentic artifacts only highlights the exclusion of the ‘other’ identities such as woman, LGBT or non-European. In this sense, the imaginary archive itself can perhaps be considered as a counter-archive while the action of creating it can be taken as contributing to the rewriting of history as well as criticizing it.

The Fae Richards Photo Archive contains photographs taken by Zoe Leonard documenting the life, romantic partners, friends and career of The Watermelon Woman, according to Dunye’s idea. The photographic documents are accompanied by explanatory texts about the documents or the context of the images, such as the people or spaces involved. The artefacts gives insight into her early life as a maid for a white upper class family, her relationship with Martha Page, a film maker who led her to start her acting career, a turning point of leaving Hollywood and focusing on black film production and finally her relationship with another African-American lesbian, June Walker.

The photographic documents were created using the photography and print technology of the time periods depicted in the archive. Also popular genres of the times such as the photo booth, family snapshot, film still, press photograph and the portrait of the diva were carefully and realistically imitated (Zapperi, 2013). In this sense, these fictional documents touches upon the history of photography as well as photography’s function in the making of social memory.

With its use of the image as a way to contribute to and influence the collective memory, the imaginary archive stands close to the mechanism of poetry, that is essentially the play of the mind. In Fae Richards’ archive, the images in which the viewer perceives Fae Richards are a total manipulation. These images are consciously constructed as to make the viewer believe in the fact that such a person have existed. In the sense of Huizinga’s understanding of poetry, this archive almost visualizes a myth about a person who never actually existed. Like many historical figures that we only know through myths, stories or historical narratives, Fae Richards is also a character that remains enigmatic and distant. Thus, it can be argued that the Fae Richards Photo Archive constructs a visual poem, which stimulates the mind and imagination into the possibility of different knowledge, memory and narratives.

Objectivity and Knowledge

Victor Burgin in his text named Photography, Phantasy, Function notes the objectivity that photography inherently possess due to its exact mimicry of reality as we see it. He states: “Projecting light reflected from a three-dimensional solid on to a plane surface, the camera obscura produces an image conforming to geometric laws of the propagation of light - an image seemingly sanctioned by nature itself, indifferent to the subjective dimensions of human affairs.” (Burgin, 1982) Photography’s realistic reproduction of the world as we see it leads to a natural claim that photographic image reflects the reality, clearly and explicitly. Following the vein of Western Enlightenment, seeing has been a dominant mode of knowledge production (Maslen, 2015). In an eye-centered culture, photography constitutes the witness of the reality and thus the basis of the knowledge about reality.

Within the narratives of identity that history creates, the photographic documents are artefacts in which these knowledge are based on. However the camera itself constructs a subjectivity (Burgin, 1982), caused from its position or its very existence. Then the question of objectivity of the photographic document comes to the fore. In this light, The Fae Richards Photo Archive can be read as a conscious attempt to underline the very likely possibility of fallacy that the photographic document can lead to. With its very realistic recreation of possible life scenes which are shot by staying true to the camera technology, aesthetics and visual trends of the depicted time period, the limits of image manipulation is pushed.


In this essay I attempted to locate elements of play and poetry within Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive. Drawing on Huizinga’s ideas about play and poetry it can be argued that this archive has a poetic approach to knowledge, under the guise of an orderly, rational, objective and systematic way of data collection. By creating an imaginary archive and narrative The Fae Richards Photo Archive relates to the social construction that play undertakes. With its manipulation of photography’s documentation value, objectivity of photography and thus the writing of history has been problematized, contributing to the wider discussion started with the feminist and queer domains.


Bryan-Wilson, J., & Dunye, C. (2013). Imaginary Archives: A Dialogue. Art Journal, 72(2), 82-89. Retrieved from

Burgin, V. (1982). Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Enwezor, O. (2008). Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art. New York:

International Center of Photography. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers.

Foster, H. (2004). An Archival Impulse. October, 110, 3-22. Retrieved from

Hlavajova, M. & Winder, J. & Choi, B. (Eds.). (2008). On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (BAK Critical Reader Series). Utrecht: BAK, Frankfurt: Revolver.

Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Maslen, S. (2015). Researching the Senses as Knowledge. The Senses and Society, 10:1, 52-70.

Zapperi, G. (2013). Woman's reappearance: Rethinking the archive in contemporary art—feminist perspectives. Feminist Review, (105), 21-47. Retrieved from

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