Haunting Objects: On the Work of Darrel Ellis

Jonathan Alexander considers the work of Black, queer photographer Darrel Ellis, whose work is receiving renewed attention.

Haunting Objects: On the Work of Darrel Ellis

OURS IS A HAUNTING time, haunted by restless pasts, by memories that refuse to be forgotten, by ghosts demanding justice. Sometimes the ghosts surprise you, lurking as they can in the smallest objects, the tiniest bits of ephemera that you almost forgot about.


I came across one such object recently, a tan zipper pencil case, made of some plastic material that, however worn with time, will long outlive me and you. My uncle, long dead, used it for … pencils? Most likely, he kept his pot in it. He and his boyfriend were ardent pot smokers, and I remember my mother, his sister, finding a joint in his wallet as she sifted through his belongings after he died. I was 12 or 13, just about to embark chemically and psychologically on my own journey toward queerness, and I’ve often wondered what that journey would’ve been like had my uncle lived. We were all in the Deep South of Louisiana, the Nixon era turning into the Reagan era, an even less pretty time for homosexuals. My uncle, dead all too soon in his early forties, might have provided some guidance, at least empathy, for the homophobic horrors ahead of me.


But he died and I was left with a few objects, some tapes of electronic and classical music he loved, and this plastic pencil case. Forty years later and I’d almost forgotten about it—I had forgotten about it—until I found the case buried under a pile of other junk in a box. I won’t say that a tear sprang to my eye; it didn’t. But I sat there for a moment, zipping and unzipping it, rubbing its worn plastic, even bringing it to my nose and sniffing, wondering if a scent of time past might still be perceptible.


It would be a stretch to call this an object of trauma, but it is a haunted—and haunting—object. It connects me now as a writer to my uncle, the only gay man I knew before I knew I was queer, and it reminds me how his loss foreshadowed numerous other losses my young teenage self was about to experience: the loss of a certain kind of family, the loss of a church community, the loss of any kind of faith in a government to protect its vulnerable citizens. Two recent books, both published last year, address similar issues of haunting and memory: Darrel Ellis: Regeneration, beautifully edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa and Leslie Cozzi, and Saved: Objects of the Dead, gorgeously produced by Jody Servon and Lorene Delany-Ullman.


I hold on to my uncle’s pencil case the way many others who have loved and lost hold on to the objects of their dead, and Servon and Delany-Ullman show in their book that it is a common practice among artists and writers. Published by Artsuite, Saved collects photographs and short prose poems about objects of beloved folks who have passed. Any such description risks making the book sound morbid, and perhaps some will find it so. But Saved rises from morbidity through memorial and into meditation on the nuances of grief—painful and beautiful, both—that permeate our approach to death, both in our lives and in contemplating those who have passed before us. We see Nonnie’s Glass Shoe, an image of a fragile green keepsake, presented in the accompanying prose as a fond memory of a granddaughter for a grandmother and an unspoken admonition to “take care not to shatter the slipper.” We see Dad’s Boy Scout Shirt, which a daughter “wears […] because she can’t let go of his smell,” holding on to her memories of him through the powerful sense of scent. We see Mom’s Chili Cup, one of many old plastic cups for Wendy’s chili that have been saved for reuse, for leftovers; this mom wasn’t the very best cook in the world, so “[s]he’d buy four or five cups [of the chili] and keep them in the refrigerator.” The objects are varied, some mundane, for sure, but almost always profound in how they speak to connections lost, surviving only in memory.


Saved, which the authors call a “poetic exploration of the human experience of life, death, and memory,” emerged when Servon (an artist) and Delany-Ullman (a writer) met at an artists’ retreat, struck up a friendship, and commenced a long correspondence about the project that eventually emerged as their book. The result is “a mixture of object, ethnography, and language combined with a sense of personal intimacy that addresses our human mortality,” and it is one sure to provoke in readers a comparable kind of memory work rooted in material objects. As the authors write, “We believe everyone who has experienced loss has a grief story” as “death permeates our lives.” The images alone are startlingly evocative, but so is Delany-Ullman’s prose, which is based in the memories of those who contributed their beloved objects but is also “touched up” by the writer, rendered as reworkings of interviews conducted with the relatives, friends, and loved ones of the departed. Taking “creative liberties” with their original words, “the writer endeavored to evoke feeling and meaning with language in concert with the images,” producing what the authors call a dual “work of photography and creative nonfiction.”


Besides the collected objects of the dead, Saved also showcases Brooklyn Public Library visual arts curator Cora Fisher’s essay “Mattering,” along with photos and micro-essays by writers and artists including Erika Hayasaki, Alex Espinoza, Swati Khurana, Leslie Gray Streeter, and Sonya Clark. Fisher’s meditation is perhaps the most probing of all the entries, laced as it is with poignant and pungently pithy comments, such as “Death clarifies value.” The title alone, “Mattering,” succinctly brings together the materiality of meaning-making through memorialization that animates Saved. Fisher also reminds readers that this book was partially compiled during the COVID-19 lockdown, moving the book from a meditation on the ontological nature of grief and loss to a particular historical phenomenology: “This crisis has superimposed the historic lineages of trauma, which both connect and divide us.” Fisher cuts to the heart of what makes Saved work as a book, a memory project, itself an art object: the collection speaks with the force of a common enough experience of the attempt to make sense of loss but also acknowledges how that loss is often tied to just-as-common experiences of human-made tragedy, trauma, and suffering.


In Saved, the scales are tipped to the former; in Bessa and Cozzi’s Darrel Ellis: Regeneration, the balance unmistakably shifts to the latter. Ellis, an African American artist (1958–92) whose life was cut all too short by AIDS, is undergoing something of a resurgence of interest, with numerous exhibitions mounted and in the works; Darrel Ellis is a profoundly moving monograph celebrating and exploring his work, introducing it to new audiences.


Almost forgotten like other Black artists from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s and now enjoying posthumous fame (such as composer Julius Eastman), Ellis benefits from a (belated) attempt to honor the aesthetic and cultural contributions of a range of artists of color but also from a renewed interest in the last three decades of the 20th century, a time that, in retrospect, powerfully set the stage for our current crises: the emergence of AIDS seems a forerunner of larger epidemic and pandemic realities; the consolidation of neoliberal forms of governance have solidified into our gross economic inequalities and precarities; the resurgence of the Right has given us the return of global fascism; prolonged inattention to the legacies of slavery (not to mention imperialism and colonialism) erupt regularly into race-based violence, seemingly state-sanctioned; and the doubled-down commitment to fossil fuels has created our climate apocalypse. Of course we want to pick at the scab of the late 20th century; it’s still bleeding, now furiously. Ellis’s work, like that of many of his contemporaries, offers a glimpse into the world that has given us ours, but it also reminds us that perhaps the only real way to address these problems is through a careful, critical, and even creative engagement with histories—something that, for all of our fetishization of past artistic movements and all-but-forgotten artists, we seem to have a hard time reckoning with.


Ellis’s practice was multifaceted and complex, but much of it hinged on reworking a treasure trove of old photographs that he inherited from his father, himself a photographer, part of the emerging midcentury Black American middle class. As the editors explain, “The young Ellis’ unique practice involved projecting these negatives onto a sculpted surface, masking out areas and rephotographing them, generating a stream of surrogates that capture the fleeting effects of memory.”


The force of these reworkings lies in part in their suggestion of Ellis’s complex relationship with the figures in the original photographs, often relatives or friends of the family. Most important of these relatives is Ellis’s father, who was murdered by police shortly before Ellis was born—an all-too-common event that resonates powerfully as we finally, so belatedly, begin (perhaps) to deal with legacies of enslavement and racialized violence. For the artist, reworking his father’s photographs offered an attempt to approach and reckon with the gaping hole of his absence. As Ellis photographed and rephotographed his father’s images into contoured forms of nearly undulating shadows, the work suggests an ongoing grappling with memory and inheritance, particularly when they are damaged or missing, a searching and probing of what has been left behind, however incomplete, in pursuit of a bigger picture. The contoured shadows indicate the warp of time, as history distorts and blurs what may have been originally clear. Ellis plays constantly with the psychic materiality of presence and absence, calling to a dead and missing father who can only appear in the traces he left behind.


But the reworkings also point to Ellis’s recognition that we, too, the left-behind, are implicated in the passage of time, warping and folding the past, with the force of our own being, our own needs and desires. As Servon and Delany-Ullman suggest, saved objects never innocently memorialize; they also bear the imprint of our need to hold on to portions of the past as it constantly slips through our fingers. Indeed, the reworkings gesture not only to the passage of time and the frailty of memory; they gesture just as much to the need to work and rework the past and its impress on our lives. Ellis’s body of work is never merely homage to loss and grief, even as it is that, surely; it is equally as profoundly a creative engagement with the past that pulls out not just loss but also beauty, not just grief but also possibility. The rephotographing and manipulation of the elder Ellis’s work testifies just as much to the beauty and thriving of Black family in a racist America as it does to the injustices committed against people of color.


We see the power of this aesthetic practice most notably in Ellis’s reworking of photographs taken of him by white photographers who have enjoyed far more fame than he ever did: Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe. Like Ellis, these gay photographers delighted in producing beautiful, striking images, and their fascination with the Black body is part of their complicated legacy: are their photographs of the Black body a loving homage, or an attempt (yet again) by white folks to capture and commodify those bodies? The question itself offers a false binary: we can never separate even the sincerest attempts to value the beauty of a body from the historical systems that have positioned certain bodies as only having value within economies of exchange and enslavement. Ellis knew this, even as he allowed his body to be photographed by these artists. He reworked those photographs himself, painting them, painting over them, asserting his own agency as a gay Black man to position and represent his subjectivity. The results are startling and moving artworks in their own right.


Late in life, I received a box of photographs of my uncle as a child and young man, a gift from cousins who had lost their mother (his sister) and were now sifting through old family photographs. Since I was the “other” queer man in the family (there are more, just not so open), my cousins wanted me to have these photos. I’d been writing about my uncle for years, trying to imagine his queer life in New Orleans, the city to which he fled from rural Louisiana in an attempt to make a life, find community, live his queerness. He did for decades, and I can only imagine, reconstructing through historical documents and now these photographs, what that journey must have been like for him in the 1960s and ’70s.


I shared this writing with an artist friend, Antoinette LaFarge, who began making a series of stunning panels, incorporating these photographs, other historical images, and her own unique symbology into gorgeous digital paintings that accompanied—and extended—my own imagination of my uncle’s life in my writing. The photos, like the pencil case, manage to live on, surviving not only an uncle’s death but the many forces that would erase queer lives as well. I think of my project with Antoinette as one of “recovered memory,” even as those memories are not my own, but those of my lost queer kin. I can’t think of a better way both to honor his life and to make sure that we don’t forget those who struggled just to be here, and whose lives have made possible our own. Would that we had more of such honoring right now, especially for all whom our society, our culture, and our political choices have attempted to silence, elide, erase.


¤


You can see Jonathan Alexander and Antoinette LaFarge’s reworking of his uncle’s photographs in Alexander’s new book, Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 

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