by Diane Armitage
Who was Fae Richards? Having “died” in 1966, her story could so easily have slid into a chasm of oblivion formed by racism on one side and sexual preference on the other. Yet, transgressivity proved to be an ironic saving grace for Richards – beautiful cipher, talented actress, and an African –American lesbian far ahead of her times – because she worked in the late1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s when blackness in the entertainment world was a flickering, indeterminate force that either slipped under the radar or emerged haltingly, always yoked to the chariot of prejudice. This quasi movie starlet, lover of women, avatar of black beauty was, in fact, no one. Because she never existed. She is a total fiction, an extended-format creation that includes Richards’ friends, lovers, and family as conceived by artists Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye and documented in photographs that simulate old images from the twenties onward as well as color photos from the fifties and sixties that could have been done with a Kodak Instamatic camera and probably were.
Every image in this piece is a pose-within-a-pose – a fictional mise-en-scéne used to interrogate racial discrimination, gender bias, and sexual inclination. But stating the themes of Leonard and Dunye’s project in this cut-and-dried fashion comes off as a paper-thin interpretation of this brilliant, multi-layered fabrication of an archive that never was. The faux documentation we’re confronted with might as well be real because the politics of the underlying issues are still vibrant in our world. The Fae Richards Photo Archive quietly grabs space in your mind and settles there like a field of flowering thistles and burrs. But Agitated Histories is an exhibition after all, that attempts to explode the accepted reality of various moments in America’s social, political, and economic narratives.( . . . )