BOMB: How did the Oral History Project begin?
Betsy Sussler: At a conference in 2013 organized by John Smith, then the director of the Archives of American Art, it became clear that no single institution could take on the responsibility of recording the life stories of the nation’s diverse artists. This mission seemed like a natural extension for BOMB, as the progenitor of in-depth yet intimate interviews between artists. I volunteered to start conducting oral histories with visual artists of the African Diaspora in New York City. BOMB records the artist’s voice, and diasporic narratives are an important part of our nation’s cultural history that need to be acknowledged as such.
What artists did you have in mind when you began the first OHP?
My first thought was that as a white woman I needed help, so I called upon BOMB friends and contributors—the artists Sanford Biggers, Carrie Mae Weems, Jack Whitten, and Stanley Whitney—as well as curators and scholars like Thelma Golden and Kellie Jones. We came up with a must-do list and then narrowed it down to Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Edward Clark, Melvin Edwards, Gerald Jackson, Wangechi Mutu, William T. Williams … It’s hard to believe that only seven years ago most of these artists were under the radar.
How are the artists selected today?
Artists are selected by the Oral History Project Advisory Board: Sanford Biggers, Melvin Edwards, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Odili Donald Odita, Lowery Stokes Sims, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Stanley Whitney, Carrie Mae Weems, Jack Whitten (in memoriam), and myself. We are often contacted by curators and visual artists who make suggestions that we consider and accommodate as much as possible. Sometimes several advisers nominate the same artist. At other times, only one adviser knows of the practice. In the end, it’s the work’s vitality that carries the day.
What were the biggest surprises you encountered while working on an oral history?
Just how much labor goes into each one—I am very adamant about our editorial method. These oral histories are not simply recorded and transcribed to be kept in a vault for a few scholars. They are meant to be accessible, to be read. In other words, they must have a strong narrative. We develop them with each subject over multiple drafts, not only for accuracy and clarity, but also so that the spoken language is transformed into what I describe as a novella.
Why do you think the Oral History Project is important today?
If an artist is not given the time and space to tell their own story, others will do it for them. History must include accounts by all who create it—that’s how we come to fully understand the course of events. The next step for BOMB is to chronicle even more histories: we intend to broaden our scope across the nation.