Keisha Scarville and I spoke via email to discuss her new book lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound (MACK, 2023), which was shortlisted for the Aperture/Paris Photo First PhotoBook Award. The book is constructed with images from several bodies of work over the past 20 years, each of which in its own way investigates Scarville’s personal and family histories to reflect on identity, personhood, and the materiality of memory.
Zach Ritter (ASX): I wanted to start by discussing some of your earlier bodies of work, if only to get a sense for what you were pursuing with them, or, what your principal interests were. Your new book is a dense and layered object, with a complex structure and approach to time and how to convey it through sequence. If we can work through some of your earlier works, and here I am thinking of your I Am Here, Passport, and Mama’s Clothes series, I think that might help in understanding where this new book comes from, what informs it, and also, where some of the images are drawn from as well. To that end, can you speak first about your I Am Here and Passport series and their shared focus on family and cultural history, and how those relate to one’s own sense of self?
Keisha Scarville: During the early 2000s, I became interested in exploring ideas around belonging, place, and embodied narratives. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana, South America, in 1967, which makes me a first-generation American. My desire to understand what it means to belong was heavily informed by my parents’ journey. Since I was a child, I have constantly traveled back and forth between New York and Guyana to visit and forge relationships with my family members who stayed. In 2001, I traveled back to Guyana with my mother. I used that as an opportunity to actively engage how landscape and place can shape our identities with my camera. It was the first time I had photographed in Guyana and the first time I focused my lens on my family. I photographed the banal and quiet moments with my family. Through deep looking, I discovered a charged intimacy and latent narratives embedded in every place. Guyana is often referred to as the Land of Many Waters, so I simply titled the series Many Waters.
I Am Here is a response to the earlier work I did in Guyana. The images were taken in and around my apartment in Brooklyn. I was thinking about what the process was for my family to build a place of home here in America and how that was transmitted and embodied in me. I reflected on the ritual and memories that activate that space of home. Questions I was moving through were: How does a place become home? What are the origins of our ideas of home? I placed my own body in the front of the camera which was a new experience for me. I was interested in that space between documentation and the performative. I would stand in front of the camera and re-enact various memories and rituals that reminded me of the place I called home. Memories like creating paper planes with my brother, the use of salt in the house to ward off evil spirits, and trying on my mother’s clothes.
Passports is an ongoing project where I repeatedly reinterpret my father’s earliest passport photo. The project began in 2012 following a conversation I had with my father during which he proclaimed that he no longer saw himself as Guyanese, but rather, an American. I was fascinated in that space of becoming and all the possibilities that that entails. I am interested in the functionality of the passport photo – not only as a signifier and emblem of territorial subjecthood, but also the guidelines that inform how one must position and present one’s body within the frame. Through an interrogative process, I re-imagine the potentiality of the image of my father. In each piece, I respond to the transformative effects of immigration and fragility of citizenship.
ASX: Before detailing the concerns of Mama’s Clothes and how they relate to the series’ which preceded it, can you expand a little bit on the concept of “territorial subjecthood”? I can’t help but think somewhat literally about it, and thus take it to mean, or to suggest, the legal and administrative structures that enforce the borders between nation-states, and how those structures create the unique conditions for the development of subjectivity and personhood within those borders. Put differently, and perhaps more simply, the fact of someone being raised in one country as opposed to another guarantees not only a difference of subjectivity and personhood, but also, and crucially, a territorially specific kind that cannot be fully replicated elsewhere. Does this approximate the meaning of the concept?
Scarville: I love both points of what you wrote and yes, both apply to the Passports series and my thinking in working on the project. I was thinking about the territory designated by borders and the laws that one is subject to within those states. One of the latent properties of the passport image is that though it is designed to reflect a stoic, neutral body, it inherently houses how the body is shaped by said laws. On the flip side, I question who is fully protected by those laws. Also, to speak to your points, I am understanding there are histories and subjectivities that one carries from one place to another. What does becoming American ask of the immigrant in relation to that which is carried over? Part of my process is unearthing what is hidden, secluded, and erased in the image.
ASX: By asking what is hidden, secluded, or erased in the passport image – by suggesting it can obfuscate the legibility of personhood and subjectivity just as easily as it can function as a clear and transparent legal document – you get at a larger set of questions regarding immigration and assimilation, which seem especially salient considering how central those phenomena are to the political situations in North America and Europe in particular.
Shifting perspectives slightly, were any of these concerns and lines of thinking important for your Mama’s Clothes series? Do you see a through line that connects that series with the work which preceded it?
Scarville: Yes, of course. I think by design the passport image straddles this unique space of irony.
I think a throughline between the Passports and the series Mama’s Clothes (which I’m starting to call Alma/Mama’s Clothes), are aspects of latency and legibility. I am thinking about absence in a different way and the ability to conjure presence in the image. In 2015, my mother passed away after a year-long battle with colon cancer. After she passed, I completely lost my narrative and was overwhelmed with grief and a strong desire to still photograph her. The series is an exploration of the materiality of absence. I became interested in photography’s role – both as a device for memorializing and an emblem of evidence – in the preservation and representation of the body in death. Drawing aesthetic inspiration from various sources that include spirit photography and the West African figure of the Egungun, I used my late mother’s clothes and fabrics to visually reconstitute and reconfigure her presence within the pictorial space. My goal was to transform her clothing into a residual, surrogate skin and become an abstraction of her body. I wanted to create a visual space where I can conjure her presence while using my body as a medium.
ASX: “The materiality of absence” is such a rich and expansive phrase, because it activates both the tangible and intangible dimensions of presence. I know that, from my own experience with mourning, and with confronting the absence of someone who was an essential part of my life, that their former possessions became almost super-charged with meaning and memory in ways I was totally unprepared to deal with. They were both painful and joyous to interact with (and still are to some extent) for the ways they could almost reanimate the person I had lost. I found myself becoming protective over objects that, just a few days, weeks, or months prior I would have viewed with an unremarkable degree of sentiment.
What’s striking to me about this series is that, in addition to using your own body as a “surrogate skin”, you also combine pieces of clothing and fabrics into dense, quasi-abstract arrangements that evoke many of the of landscapes you use as settings for the “surrogate skin” works. And, in a different way and for different reasons than you did in the Passport series, in Alma/Mama’s Clothes you also seem to be abstracting from concrete, tangible, and specific materials that express something true and fundamental about a person. In these works there’s a heightened degree of emphasis on the landscape, which is something you expand upon in your new book. How has your thinking about landscape developed over the years as you’ve engaged with it in new ways?
Scarville: Yes, I really resonate with how you framed the way possessions can “almost reanimate the person . . .”
I think of my mother’s clothes and fabrics as surrogate skin. When researching spirit photography and the Victorian era, I was very drawn to the figure of the medium as an individual who purported to have the ability to traverse thresholds and be in dialogue with individuals who have transitioned. I was particularly drawn to the use of the ectoplasm within spaces of seance and ritual. It gave me an entry point to how to think about her clothing and photograph it – both in relationship to my body and for building spaces.
In regards to my own thinking about landscape: Initially I was curious about understanding differences and similarities between the land of Guyana and America – for finding my own sense of belonging. I thought that my understanding could be gathered through study and deep looking.
With the project Mama’s Clothes, some of the images are taken in my mother’s favorite places in New York City. In Guyana, I photographed in and around my grandfather’s house where my mother grew up. It was important in that project that her clothes (her body) were visually embedded within the landscape. As the project progressed, I started to drift into making more black and white images. The loss of color allowed for the patterns to collapse into the background, becoming part of the landscape and returning back to it. She is here and there, in and of.
The biggest influence or shift in my thinking about landscape came in 2016, a friend recommended that I read Wilson Harris who was a Guyanese author and essayist. Sadly, I was previously unaware of his work. He started off as a land surveyor for the government in Guyana and then moved into writing. His stories and theoretical work often referenced the land. His language is so rich and densely metaphorical. He often spoke about the unique language of the landscape that wasn’t completely centered in the humanistic definition. During my first introduction to his writing, I began to go camping by myself in various locations in New York and the Caribbean (Jamaica). I would go out at night and photograph in an attempt to meditate on what it meant to find language with/alongside the landscape.
Currently, I think about landscape as containing a multitude of narratives — survival of the outside, temporalities, openings and enclosures, vulnerability and safety, diaspora, movement, power, the sacred, colonization, and post-. . ., as part of the question of our lineage, and how we claim a place as part of our own identity. I am also thinking about how the black body is shaped by the landscape and vice versa. These are all just what is swirling around my head when I am thinking about landscape currently.
ASX: I’d like to shift the conversation onto your book, lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound. One of the elements that I find curious about it is the way it’s structured. You signal shifts in time in an elliptical way both by using archival materials and different types of images, which are themselves markers of time, and also by introducing specific years – 1967, 1992, 2015, 1932, 1949, 1975, 1914 – that you pair with a poetically fragmented text. The “main” sequence, if we can call it that, is bookended by a series of images that emphasize the feel of stone, water, skin and fabric – images that seem like elaborations on the bodies of work we’ve already discussed. It’s almost as though, in the beginning of the book, you were working through and then peeling back layers of the earth to get at some deeper and more mysterious space (the image of a hand half-submerged in soft earth, seemingly ready to begin extracting one fist-full at a time, and which is paired next to the first white page with a year and text, is especially evocative in this regard). And then, to signal the closure of the book, we pass again through a similar stretch of pages, culminating with several full-bleed images of stone that now evoke the textures of skin and fabric as well. Can you speak about how you developed the book’s structure? Was it closely related to the genesis of the book as a whole? Or was it something that emerged along the way, or that took shape as you built out the sequence?
Scarville: Thank you so much for your words. It touches on so much of what I wanted to evoke in the book. Yes, there is an amalgamation of previous themes in my image making process.
When I was first given the opportunity to do a book, I knew that I didn’t want to do a catalog of my images. I actually initially didn’t want any of my images to be part of the book, but rather everything that exists within the ecosystem of making. What are the images that bring me to make an image? When I expressed this to Michael at MACK, he was fully on board. We both recognized that this would be quite an ambitious undertaking and the difficulty in doing this in book form. I had pooled a collection of images, some of which exists on the walls of my studio. I wanted to formulate the book as a way to decenter my work and allow what informs my work to emerge. I have been thinking about thresholds for quite some time and thought about ways in which the book itself can offer a movement through practice and that space be a break in the flow of the images. Limbo movement, in particular, is of interest to me – the idea that one has to go down low, bend, contort, and then re-emerge, realign on another side is incredibly fascinating to me. I think about my parents’ journey to America and my constant trips back and forth to and from here and Guyana. Movements across land and water also call up previous ancestral movements and temporal disruptions. This became a conceptual skeleton to structure the book.
I sat down and started mapping things out like a puzzle, or for me, it felt more like making a video.
The book begins and ends with close up images I have taken over the years of the seawall in Guyana. A structure meant to hold land and protect against emerging waters. It holds a tremendous amount of history and cultural significance in Guyana. Then the book shifts to the “main section” where there are my formal black and white images, mostly taken with thoughts of gestures (and counter gestures) of limbo movements, thresholds, and permeability in mind. The next section consists predominantly of archival images that break the flow of the book, starting with an image of my parents taken about a year and a half after they arrived in the States. I see this section as a non-linear movement through time where images of my family members who have passed away are present, alongside images that have had a deep impact on my practice and development are given space. I use collage, overlapping images and my archive as a way to create new temporalities, new movements, and new genealogies. Included in this space are ephemera, drawings, contemporary images of me performing a variety of movements, and my own writing which include significant years. These years mark births, deaths, and breaks within my family. We are then brought back into the space of the formal black and white images. The book design also considers movement – the front and back covers can elongate and offer its own threshold as well. In making the book, I wanted to think about it as an object that offers a space, an experience, something different than looking at a series of images laid out page after page, or an image on a wall.
When discussing the text with Harmony Holiday, she and I were very adamant that the text not be a place where she would talk about my work, but rather choose something that came up for her within the work and write about that. I shared the structure with her and the preliminary layout. She was keen on the idea of the threshold and limbo movements. In her essay she talks about the “Black Backstage.” It’s a very thoughtful and insightful essay.
ASX: Your phrase “the ecosystem of making” evokes something similar to how we discussed “territorial subjecthood” earlier on, in that both introduce and then seek to emphasize the deeper layers of context to a given object or subjective reality. Each concept directs our attention outward from and underneath what one first looks at or thinks about, and in the book you have the ability to literalize that kind of movement by using the sequence to introduce material which signals a new flow of time or process of image-making. It seems like there is a process of personal and historical excavation being carried out, one page at a time.
One of the temporal and spatial registers you introduce is the cosmic. You do this by using the visual properties of some fabrics to prime us to start seeing in those terms, later on with rudimentary sketches of planetary orbits, and, most impactfully I think, once that “main section” begins, by setting the images of your parents after they had just arrived in the States against a backdrop of deep black space and faraway stars which seem to be receding from us, almost as though time – a far different type than the one communicated by the pictures of your parents – were passing by us on the page. You return again and again to what seems to me like the invocation of the cosmos, often by joining it with more “earthbound” objects, so to speak, such that, by the end of the book, even the images of the seawall that you helpfully identified seem to hold within them a celestial quality. What was the significance of this visual and temporal register for you in constructing the book? Does it inform your historical thinking at all? Am I putting too much stress on these elements?
Scarville: I am a digger, most definitely. The drawings are musings on alternative ways time can be charted, but I like that it can also be read as various orbits.
The book does tap into the cosmology of journeys. There is a huge reliance on visual language as prompts for movement. I wanted to lean into the density of images to create a multi-temporal/dimensional/spatial experience. I also knew that I wanted to use text very minimally and it is placed in spaces to offer a pause.
My use of the cosmic is to interpolate movement and temporal spaces that are not limited to land and water — to approximate or register the black body being alive in the past, present and future all at once and in communion with one another. This is what I believe the threshold contains for us.
My core belief system is rooted in acknowledging the sacred realm of the ancestors. This does impact how I think about time and lineage. Not sure if I’m answering your question.
ASX: This book brings together in a unique and singular way so much of what you’ve worked on over the past twenty plus years, and not, as you said, in a manner that provides us with just a simple or reductive “overview”. Instead, what you’ve constructed is a book that creates its own reality by connecting different – though related – bodies of work, and also by using images from those series in ways they may otherwise not have been used, which is to say they’ve been made to work differently, to bear more metaphoric weight, perhaps. You allow us to familiarize ourselves with what you’ve created without treating each body of work like it’s own cul-de-sac, so to speak. Instead, they seem like links in a chain that keeps going and going and going.
I’m curious to know if the process of making this book led you to understand your work in new or different ways. Likewise, were there specific books you looked at that helped clarify your thinking with regards to your own book?
Scarville: Working on the book offered new entry points and ways of thinking about the connections across projects that I wasn’t aware of before. It was also an opportunity to loosen previously rigid ways of thinking I had in relation to photography. For a while, I often thought that work needed to be presented in series with a set beginning and end and sequencing that provided a clear movement through the work. I have been pushing back against this notion and processing ways projects leak into each other and how a collection of work all occupy a constellation of looking.
I initially looked at books where the artist was engaging archive in the book:
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa – One Wall A Web (Roma, 2018), Zora J. Murff – True Colors (Aperture, 2022), Arthur Jafa – Love is the Message (2016), Shala Miller – Tender Noted (Wendy’s Subway, 2022), Carla Liesching – Good Hope (Mack, 2021).
Interestingly enough, Speak The Wind (Mack, 2021) by Hoda Afshar was a book I went back to multiple times. I love the presence of the landscape in the book.
ASX: Beyond the specific ways you use archival imagery to expand upon, say, the threads of landscape and memory that are so prevalent throughout, in a more general sense such material encourages us to think historically. Of course, this could be to no end or without real purpose, but here it feels like a natural extension of the work you’ve been making contemporaneously. I think this is, to a large extent, the result of how you layer and arrange images with one another on the page – you force us to see juxtaposition and comparison in a more direct way than with sequence alone. Several of the books you just mentioned employ a similarly dense approach to layout (True Colors is a vivid example of this).
Related to my previous question, I’m wondering whether or not this book, both the making of it and now having the finished object at hand, has produced a noticeable change in how you think about photography in a medium-specific sense. Was this a confirmation of what capacities you already knew it had from working in it for so many years, or were you able to uncover something new about how images work?
Scarville: Yes, my thinking around photography has definitely been impacted over the course of making the book. Being met with the challenge of creating the experience within the pages, I was forced to rely heavily on visual language, more so than text, to create that space. It wasn’t just about selection and sequencing, but how the overlap/superimpose creates links as well. So for me, since I started making the book I have been thinking a great deal about images as sites of transmission — how do images structure our language, being, sense of time and space? Some of this I was cognizant of before, but in making the book, I have encountered a deeper understanding of it.
I have also been thinking about the incompleteness of photographs. In building the book, I thought a lot about images as fragmentations. What if the only way to fully grasp what an image is conveying it to see it juxtaposed against another, and what if in the overlapping and proximities to one another, images become whole?