the road ahead
an interview with alkebuluan merriweather

January 2021
by The Caldera Team

The Black Joy Archive, founded and curated by Zoë Pulley, began in May of 2020 in an effort to compartmentalize the chaos that was this past Summer. “Intended to serve Black people as a therapeutic practice in self-preservation and self-esteem, as we are continually asked to face painful imagery of folks who look like us. The goal is that this collective action can be an outlet for Black individuals to heal through lifting our voices and giving space for our experiences to be seen, while also demystifying the notion that Black lives can solely be viewed in the negative vacuum of struggle. An open-call was made for individuals to submit images of their joy - be it childhood or family photos, candids, or personal artwork they have created. Over the course of three weeks, over sixty people submitted over five-hundred images.”

This short-series of interviews and features are part of The Black Joy Archive’s digital residency with Caldera Magazine. Check back to learn about the contributing artists, the founder, and the future of the project over the next few months.

Alkebuluan Merriweather (she/her) is a Chicago native pursuing a graduate degree in Museum and Exhibition Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The self-directed archivist and “occasional image maker” is drawn to the peaceful, the mundane, the sacred - as evident in her work for The Black Joy Archive. The series Alkebuluan shares in this first edition is emotionally loud with a joyous love only those with siblings know.

Her debut photo essay follows her younger brother, Sholomo, as he navigates life with autism. Though the incredibly intimate photos, at first glance, feel rather quiet they serve as a lens to unpack the reality that even a universal emotion can be shared and experienced differently. In this ongoing photo series, Alkebuluan not only confronts the very definition of joy, but also the glaring lack of discussion surrounding the intersection of disability and race.

Q: Given the focus of TBJA it makes sense to start by asking a personal question - what is your most joyous memory?

A: I would say my most joyous memory was learning I was accepted into both graduate programs I applied to. I revisit this memory often because it reminds me how far I’ve come - during my time as an undergraduate, I worked primarily in food service to support myself and my education. My experience within hospitality put me at a disadvantage because I was not able to secure any entry level positions at a museum or even an unpaid internship when I graduated. As the rejections rolled in post-graduation, I decided to quit my job after 8 months full-time to further my education. So revisiting this moment reminds me of what I’m capable of.

Q: Being conscientious of our current social and political state, I want to focus on the vital need to reframe the perception of Black people in media, online, and elsewhere. A project like this [The Black Joy Archive] achieves this with a very simple mission in documenting just that, Black joy. Given the last few months what did this opportunity provide you with? Is showcasing our joy actually all that simple?

A: This project gave me the opportunity to represent a narrative that is often overlooked within society, television, art - and even education - around Blackness and disability. In my personal opinion, I believe it is difficult to showcase Black joy. We (Black people) are often subjected to images of violence, pain, and anger in direct relation to our experience/existence. However, showcasing our joy can be quite fruitful. Some examples are Renata Cherlise’s Black Archives Co. and the Chi Archives. Both are wonderful examples of digital archives that have brought me joy alongside other members of the Black community.

Q: The archival process/practice is something our team is super interested in. It’s almost ritualistic, and thinking about platforms like Instagram really underpin our inherent need to document. Knowing this, how would you encourage people to approach creating their own personal archive of sorts? Should we be more intentional about what we document and why?  

A: To start, I would encourage people to archive what they think is important.  We all hold different values to what we believe is crucial to us as human beings. For instance, I recently started a digital archive titled Black Matriarch Archive. This particular archive serves as a love letter to Black Matriarchs and commemorates those who have played a role in raising the next generation of individuals of African descent.  Some important questions we should consider when starting this process are who is this for? Have you obtained consent of the individuals you are documenting? How do you actually plan to make your personal archive? Lastly, why do you feel the need to create your own personal archive? How does your archive go against the cannon of documenting the past and present?

Q: Similarly, what complexities, challenges, or questions did you find yourself sifting through as you worked on this project?

A: The series I am working on, The Road Ahead, has received some feedback that my language is ableist via the statement I submitted - “The images I have submitted below from a series I document my disabled brother”. I’m still  learning to confront and correct my own ableist language and behavior while I  continue to work on this series, which is of course of the utmost importance.

Q: Your specific contribution [The Road Ahead] is particularly moving as your intent and interpretation of joy shatters conceptions not just around what joy actually looks like, but who experiences it as well. Could you elaborate further? Do you have plans to expand it?

A: The Road Ahead is an unending series where I document  my younger brother Sholomo, a Black man on the austic spectrum.I absolutely have plans on expanding this series! I haven’t come across artwork that addresses black men who are on the austic spectrum. The goal of this series is to provide visibility of black disabled individuals by showcasing representation of black joy through familiar sibling bonds.

Q: Feedback and notes from the communities or individuals being featured in our work are so crucial. I really appreciate your honesty and candidness in stating that you have much to learn as, frankly, we all do. With that in mind, could you share your approach or process for this series? How do you work with your brother (and family) in developing it?

A: In terms of my process, I wait for my brother to tell me when he is ready to be photographed.  I always want to ensure that my brother is comfortable with himself and his surroundings before moving forward with the documentation process. Due to covid-19, we have restricted our shoots to the confines of our parents home. I often have to tell my sibling, “Hey Sholomo, can you look at the camera for a  few seconds”, or “Sholomo can you tilt your head down”, or “Sholomo put on your favorite outfit and we’ll go take pictures in the yard”. My family has always been supportive of my creative process, they honestly just leave me be when I make art.

Wearing a black t-shirt dawning the phrase “every little thing is gonna be alright” Sholomo’s smile and completely genuine performance of self work together creating an organic moment between brother and sister as they document their bond through this type of mutual storytelling. This slow and spontaneous process has made for a moving series, one we cannot wait to follow as it evolves. View the photo essay in The Black Joy Archive, explore more of Alkebuluan Merriweather’s work on IG at @alkebuluanm_ and @blackmatriarcharchive.