Thinking with Photography
Studio Check-In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them and the objects they steward, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.
In this Studio Check-In, Ilk Yasha speaks with independent curator Delphine Sims, currently the Wyeth Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. Delphine participated in the Studio Museum’s 2021 Museum Professionals Seminar program.
Delphine, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I’m super jazzed about our conversation today. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
I love that you say you're jazzed because that feels appropriate for some of the themes we’ll talk about today. My name is Delphine Sims. I’m very committed to my last name. Sims is how people refer to my dad and family is truly everything to me. Most of my people live in my hometown of Riverside, California. I'm the middle child of three sisters, which I feel is essential for people to know about me because I embraced the mediator role, which I think informs my curatorial work.
I've been invested in the museum world for some time now, going on over a decade. I've had a traditional museum route into the art world, meaning I’ve interned and worked at museums rather than more alternative art institutions.
I'm currently a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley in the art history department. I am a historian of photography, and I focus on photographers of the African diaspora. I’ve been steadily working on my dissertation, which highlights four black women artists, Nona Faustine, Xaviera Simmons, Latoya Ruby Frazier, and Carrie Mae Weems, and their relationship to a broader American landscape. I'm focusing on how their self-portraiture within American geographies renegotiates a history of landscape photography.
Your research expertise is on the history of photography in the Americas. What interests you most about photography?
For a long time, people have said photography is the most democratic medium. I don't agree with that statement as there are still a lot of inequities and inequalities that surround the tool that is a camera or the process of producing a photograph. I will agree it's a ubiquitous medium. It's everywhere. Most people cannot escape it. There's something delightfully mundane about that.
Then there’s the reality that the invention of photography came out of modernity. By consequence, it's a medium tied to white supremacy and Enlightenment notions of the promise of science and systems. I am committed to unpacking those issues and critiquing that long history.
There still aren't enough folks within the field of photography who are unpacking that history, particularly from the perspective of the African diaspora. I love thinking with Black artists working with the medium of photography because there's a constant perversion of what the inventors of photography imagined it was capable of. These artists consistently undermine photography’s intended uses; for example, they might trouble the notion of a photograph’s ability to register or index what we encounter in the world.
Black artists are innovating and remixing what we can imagine a photograph as doing. When the medium is always in the process of being reinvented then I find a photograph is endlessly open to interpretation. There's never a period or closure about a photograph. It is constantly evolving depending on its relationship to various audiences. Every time you encounter it, every time someone new encounters it, every time the photographer returns to it, it's constantly unfolding. Somewhere in there is why I'm so committed to it.
I’m curious if there was anyone in your family or vicinity who was invested in photography when you were growing up.
Not so much. My mom is a writer, and she always wrote through or was influenced by art and photography. I grew up going to a lot of museums, and we would look at photographs together. As in many households, we had Deborah Willis's Posing Beauty book in the house, and that was impactful for me.
I started to understand my commitment to photography in high school when I was doing a project on Malcolm X. I was fascinated by these different versions of him he performed in different photographs. From then on, I just kept returning to photography to understand Black history.
Maybe two years ago I learned my late grandfather on my dad's side collected cameras. My dad was like, hey I found this box of cameras, do you want it? I said yes, obviously.
The Studio Museum and MoMA partner to organize exhibitions in their Project Space, found on the entry floor of the building. The upcoming exhibition will be on Ming Smith, a Harlem-based photographer. Can you tell me a little about your thoughts on Ming’s work?
I'm interested in photography groups and collectives, and I have thought through and encountered Ming Smith’s work through the Kamoinge Workshop. It's incredible she was the first woman to be admitted into the group. I'm interested in self-portraiture and this relationship between a photographer and how they envision themselves, and a particular kind of construction of the self, or who they want to offer to the world. I've always had her self-portraits hovering in my mind. She has a particular relationship to posing because she has a history with modeling. I often look at her photographs and think about how she orchestrated a version of herself for the world. But I also am interested in several Black women artists who are trying to negotiate being a mother and being an artist at the same time.
We can think about Betye Saar as part of the conversation or Senga Nengudi's stretched pantyhose as artwork invested in exploring motherhood or a mother's changing body. Ming Smith has also taken these self-portraits where she's literally holding the camera and nursing her child at the same time, evoking that same conflict and promise of the tensions around motherhood and art practice.
Her photograph Malcolm in Barbershop,” Harlem, N.Y., 1987 is the background of my computer. I lived in Harlem last year, so I was just spending a lot of time with photographers who introduced me to a place I'd only known from afar. She had this photograph of Malcolm X in a barbershop, and I was like, this constellates all my things.
There is this specific mention of the word “blur” when describing Ming’s work. I’m curious what you think about this “blurring” effect that she uses in her photography.
We could go the Fred Moten blurring, jazz route, but I have to out myself and note that I am a bad Black art historian in that I don't love jazz. I try, I try a lot, but it's not my love. We could go that route in sort of the improvisation that comes from this notion of blurring.
But I was thinking about it differently. Ming Smith has talked about how she paints with light, which is often what photographers say about being able to see the world through the relationship of light and objects and how that then gets rendered into black and white when they're printing. For example, we have Smith’s iconic image of Sun Ra, which is a combination of the blur and play with light. She not only paints with light, but she likes to paint with this kinetic energy, which I think is very applicable to this notion of jazz and movement and intensity.
But also, I like her blur in terms of a Glissant "opacity," like, we can't fully access all of that emotion, creativity, and energy that's entangled in the presence of a person like Sun Ra. There's an inability to fully capture these swarming Black energies that are compounded and in flux, it is sad, it is joy, you know, it's these constant emotive tensions.
Ming has cited music as a big influence in her work. While jazz might not be your jam, do you have a favorite sound or noise personally?
I'm gonna do one musical musing and then one personal one. I'm named after a flower, so I have an affinity for flowers. Minnie Riperton’s "Les Fleur” is a song that makes me feel like I'm floating with happiness. It brings me joy every time I hear it. When you listen to the lyrics, it guides you into having some gratitude in the world despite all the shit. There is an angelic quality to it which is exceptional too, but that's what Minnie Riperton's voice offers us, an almost otherworldly sound.
The other sound is from my dad; he has this voicemail recording that's the most ridiculous thing. He was like: “It's a test. It's a test. I'm not gonna leave the voicemail recording like that.”
Now it's been seven years at this point and it's still the same voicemail. Basically, it’s like, “It's me. I'm not here. Leave a message. Sims out." It is just…it’s everything.
I love it all. The art of recording the voicemail message and leaving a voicemail too. I remember recording my voicemail message in high school and I used a snippet of “Sexual Healing” – and I was one of those to sign off with a “holla” at the end.
There's leaving the voicemail and then knowing or expecting someone will leave it. You record an outgoing message, which people used to be obsessed with. Now I'm like, it's kinda sad that we lost that weird extension of our personalities. I had all my janky recordings from playing music that I would record for my voicemail. I'm pretty sure I had a Pretty Ricky song at one point. So embarrassing.
Amazing. I should also give you my congratulations on recently completing a fellowship at the Met! Did you have a favorite moment in your experience you’d like to share? Tell us more about The Shadow Play: Plantation Mansions and Racial Proximity.
The Shadow Play: Plantation Mansions and Racial Proximity is the title of my presentation for the culmination of my fellowship. Speaking of sound—I hadn't thought about this—but I’m very committed to Tony Morrison's voice, which is like the voice of God in my opinion.
I'm always trying to return to her voice. So, I played a recording of her reading a section of Beloved at the start of my talk. I then presented a paper about Carrie Mae Weems’s series "The Louisiana Project,” which theorized notions of memory and photography from Morrison’s writing. There was an unexpected Morrison connection because someone else on my panel was also working through Beloved’s relationship with art. I think that connection offered some beautiful art historical scholarship stemming from Morrison.
Another highlight was related to the Kamoinge Workshop. I got to write an acquisition report for an Adger Cowan photograph of jazz singer Gloria Lynn. Being able to see that photograph in person was incredible because it's this weird, solarized print, which is an odd photography process, but it's essentially a portrait of Gloria Lynn becoming this ethereal spirit.
He also took a photograph of Fannie Lou Hamer, and I was really affected by this image because there's a complicated relationship between the Black Power movements and civil rights movements and photography. I later met Cowans briefly and learned several of the Kamoinge folks went down South and photographed her. There's this whole archive of images of Fannie Lou Hamer that we don't know or are coming to know slowly.
You’ve worked on a variety of curatorial projects at different institutions. What do you most love about curatorial work, broadly? And is there a small or mundane detail you associate with curatorial labor you especially appreciate and love?
It's the collaborative nature I love. As I said, I've had a very traditional route, so my collaboration looks a lot like working with different departments in a museum. I try to disrupt the hierarchy between the curator and fellow museum workers, because we all have art expertise. We all have different opinions of art. I like to be involved in those conversations as we're imagining, planning, and offering something to the public. And of course, the public is part of that collaboration.
You know, a lot of folks who are conservators or on the preparation team, those who are framing, preserving, or installing the artworks, a lot of these folks are artists themselves, so they have a much different relationship to the artwork. I love speaking with them about how they encounter and interpret these pieces.
Education folks and public programs have energy unlike anyone else. They must get the public to care, which requires an exceptional amount of enthusiasm and passion. I'm very low, Eeyore-like-energy, sorry Ilk, you're just not gonna get much excitement out of me. Because I'm even-keeled, I love being around folks who enliven a space and the artwork, which can be very static. Honestly, photo shows can be very boring. They’re often standard-size frames mounted at fixed distances on the wall at eye level. It's the artists, the installers, and educators who can think differently and push curators.
Lastly and oddly, I like the bureaucratic, logistical side of curatorial work. I like being stuck formatting a checklist and staring at an image and being annoyed with how it's not being formatted correctly in Word because then I'm spending more time with the image. Or problem-solving the logistics of how to get an artwork installed. That’s where the interpretations start to formulate for me: the longer I stare at it or think through what is and isn’t possible curatorially. When I'm doing that sort of bullshit database work, I'm often having a great time.
You’re involved with an archiving project for Kathleen Cleaver, one of the early members of the Black Panther Party. What does Black Power mean to you today?
I still think it's based on collectivity. We've shifted away from some of the need for a certain magnetism of the big personality icon. It's a lot more diffuse characters who are working together in the service of Black Power.
I do think charisma still matters, but it's landed in a different relationship with the media. If we think of the Black Panther Party, we're thinking about their newspaper and how that was disseminated, and how they pushed out their messages. Now Black Twitter is everything. There's black Power there, right? Social media requires interest from the broad public, so strong personalities attract large bases, but there’s so much room for power distribution across the activist landscape. I think Instagram, TikTok, all have these different notions of Black Power.
Black Power consistently is foregrounded by Black women, Black feminists, queer and trans people of African descent, who are conceptualizing Black Power in different, far more intersectional and imaginative ways. These are a lot of the folks who demanded change during Kathleen Cleaver's time and continue to do so today.
Shout out to my sister Gaila because she was just telling me about the Black Panther Party's relationship with disabilities rights movements. That was dope to learn about and there's a lot more awareness of Black disability studies and folks and how it's those who society has ignored the most that enable us to critique where we are and conceptualize where we need to be.
When I think of the word "power," I’m also thinking about agency, faculty, freedom, etc., and it's interesting to think about iterations of Black Power movements and how this moment has tried to feminize, or even queer, the hierarchy and leadership of this movement. It all looks and feels different now.
Yeah. I would say too, something I've learned through the Kathleen Cleaver project is how essential it is to understand all the parts of Black Power work: writing letters to people to coordinate talks, events, and protests, figuring out how to house and feed people, finding locations for speeches, getting together bail money and legal counsel. Kathleen was the communications secretary, so it was not only working with the media but the communications work to keep people in contact with one another.
I completely agree that the promise of Black Power today is both Black feminist-oriented and queer and, I would add, continually invested in the visual. I am thinking about Patrisse Cullors and the Crenshaw Dairy Mart. This is about creativity, artist practice, garden work, and simultaneously critique of systems and fighting for Black life. We have Linda Goode Bryant and Lauren Halsey both doing incredible creative work to feed and sustain people. They’re constantly articulating how these projects aren’t about them but are collective and in service of intimate and local communities.
What are you working on that's energizing you or making you think of your role as a curator differently?
Championing black artists broadly. One I've encountered in the last couple of years was James Oliver Mitchell. I met him in Oakland in 2019 and he was eighty-five at the time. Mr. Mitchell was a prolific photographer but was completely ignored by the photography world. He was also delightfully cranky and did not take shit from anyone. We started to do some interviews and he showed me his photographs in his cramped Oakland apartment that was filled floor to ceiling with rare photo books, prints, and negatives from throughout his career. I learned that he had all these fascinating moments and intersections with various canonical photographers, like Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, and Garry Winogrand. Now, this was not my dissertation, so I was strongly encouraged to just think about him but not dedicate too much energy to a project on him. But then last year, I proposed writing an essay in Aperture to honor his passing in January 2021.
Brief background, I lived in Santa Barbara, California, for a while, which is essentially a retirement community. I started to get comfortable and invested in spending time with folks who are seventy-five or older—they give the world so much, they have so much wisdom. From then on, I made it a point to get to know aging Black artists who haven’t received proper attention and acclaim from the art world. I wanted to offer Mr. Mitchell something for his career and it hurt that I couldn't do much before he passed, but I was able to write this essay. In the process, I began to work with his family who now oversees his archive and estate. I want people to know his work and pay attention to it cause it's incredible. He was extremely solo. He was not in Kamoinge. All off on his own.
A big part of my curatorial career has always been to champion the unknown Black artist. I want to keep doing that for him. There's a website now that his children have created to help get more attention to his photographs. I’ll conclude by mentioning that he lived in Harlem for like the first twenty-two years of his life, more or less. He has a huge archive of Harlem photography. I think because he was so isolated, he has a particularly profound and unique lens on the world.
What are you most excited about in 2023?
Two professional things, hopefully getting my dissertation done—yeah, that would be awesome. And I have a teeny tiny permanent collection exhibition at the Met opening next year. That's been fun to put together. It’s organized around a broad theme: how photography translates and mediates our relationship to art and art institutions. It's so hard writing labels after you're writing your dissertation, but I managed. I'm excited that'll be in the world.
Delphine, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us!