A5: Project 2: Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye

Look online at the Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye series The Fae Richards Photo Archive.

Do you have any archives that you could have access to? Might you be able to use it for the beginnings of a project? Blog about some ideas that you could come back to some day.

Before I started to investigate any archival material I might have at my disposal I wanted to know more about Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye. I watched a video about The Watermelon Woman on YouTube (1) where Cheryl Dunye talks about why she wanted to make this film. She had watched many films, made in the 1930’s and 40’s but could not find any work about black women. When a black actress acted in a film their names were often omitted from the credits. One film Plantation Memories was about a woman called Watermelon Woman. This film inspired her work – or maybe this is a fictional account of the birth of the work…..

Whatever the truth of the origins of this project  Dunye created a film about an African-American lesbian woman, played by herself, who was working in a video store and researching the life of Fae Richards, a 1930s starlet.

Through the use of photographic and archival conventions Leonard and Dunye successfully borrow from the lives of historical figures to create a believable narrative that opens up questions as to what is left out of the historical record.(2)

Zoe Leonard, a New-York based photographer, created 78 fictional images documenting the life of a fictional actress, Fae Richard’s, life. (3) The work reminded me of that Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown which tells the story of a fictional jazz guitarist (9). I remember feeling a little cheated coming out of this film. I had been duped or so I thought. On reflection I began to ask myself why I felt this deception. It was a great film and it mattered not a jot that the main character was fictional – he was a superb jazz guitarist.(4)

So this brings me to the question of my own or someone else’s archives. Do I have any? Well “Yes” and “No” and “Maybe”. I am an inveterate “Life Laundress” I am obsessed with not leaving my children with a pile of material to sort out. Giving their personalities I believe they would chuck it all in the bin.

But I have done extensive research on my family. This is extremely difficult in Ireland where all records before 1864 were destroyed. The record books were sent to the UK to provide paper to help the war effort. Church records do survive but on microfiche. Many of the original books were stored in damp church premises with consequent damage. Some of the church clerks and priests did not have the best handwriting much of which is indecipherable. Some of those responsible for making these records were lazy and did not record many details. But despite all these drawbacks I have obtained exciting glimpses into the lives of my great grandparents.

My great grandfather, John Stephenson, had always been an elusive character. He and my great grandmother, Laetitia Millet, were the parents of seven children, one of whom was my paternal grandfather. The latter gentleman seems to have been a less than responsible parent leaving my father at the age of five, to be reared by his four siblings. But he is of less interest to me than my great grandparents.

On the birth of each of the seven children my great grandfathers occupation seemed to have changed. He went from being a male servant, through a period as a farmer, and this despite living in a tenement in the centre of Dublin. He finally ended up as a ships chandler, with a shop on the quays of the River Liffey in Dublin. But his life does not terminate normally. At least there is no record of when or where he died or indeed where his body was interred.

My great grandmother. Laetitia, was a very formidable woman by all accounts. She had the five of her seven children who predeceased her buried in marked graves. She even had their various spouses also interred in the Stephenson plot. But, alas, her husband John’s death is not recorded anywhere, he just disappeared….

My father always told the story that my great grandmother was French and that he remembered his grandparents speaking French together. The name, Laetitia Millet, is indeed french but, I discovered, his grandparents were dead before he was born……

I believe my great grandmother was an early feminist. On the 1901 Irish census form a widow was instructed to write widow if her husband was dead. My great grandmother wrote “Head of houselhold”. I want to know more about this woman and hope that I survive long enough to complete some research. But even if I don’t I can always construct it….

 

  1. YouTube. 2016. The Watermelon Woman – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdvGXf74GbE. [Accessed 30 May 2016].
  2. Archives and Creative Practice. 2016. Zoe Leonard & Cheryl Dunye — Archives and Creative Practice. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/zoe-leonard-cheryl-dunye/. [Accessed 30 May 2016]
  3. CHERYL DUNYE | Introducing Fae Richards: Excerpts from The Watermelon Woman – GLYPHS | ACTS OF INSCRIPTION. 2016. CHERYL DUNYE | Introducing Fae Richards: Excerpts from The Watermelon Woman – GLYPHS | ACTS OF INSCRIPTION. [ONLINE] Available at: http://pitweb.pitzer.edu/glyphs/cheryl-dunye/. [Accessed 30 May 2016].
  4. Wikipedia. 2016. Sweet and Lowdown – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_and_Lowdown. [Accessed 30 May 2016].

 

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