recreating a life from found notebooks: Annabelle Baker

Traveling in France, I met Ivanne Barberis, who in 2008 found a set of notebooks in the trash on the Lower East Side of New York, made by a nurse, Annabelle Baker. From her writings and the magazines she had collected, it appeared that she was African American. Her notebooks were from nursing school, where she’d graduated in 1973. Baker had gone back since her schooling and written commentaries or other notes in her notebooks. Ivanne was unable to find out more about her, but found the life hinted at in the notebooks, and the notebooks themselves tantalizing — in the way that scrapbooks by unknown people often are: They hint at a set of interests and concerns, at a mode of schooling and work. Ivanne is a nurse, and so also felt a professional connection to Baker.

Ivanne had been reading Patrick Modiano’s extraordinary Dora Bruder, which tells of the author’s being intrigued by an odd news clipping from a newspaper published during the Occupation in Paris, and trying to find out more about Dora Bruder, the subject of it — who was her family, who was she? What happened to her during the war? Modiano’s search and its dead ends are part of the story he tells, along with his own family’s experience during the war, in some of the same spaces Dora moved through, and his own movement through the spaces of present-day Paris.

Instead of digging up more on Annabelle Baker’s life (as I probably would have tried to do), however, Ivanne invited other artists — writers, visual artists, performers — to create pieces in some way about Annabelle Baker, as she emerged for them in her notebooks, magazine reading, and Ivanne’s experience finding the materials.

The work was performed and displayed in 2011, at La General, an artistic, political, and social cooperative. http://www.lagenerale.fr/?p=1091

I wish I’d been able to see it. I think the idea was to explore what makes found objects, fragments of person’s life, intriguing, and how it opens space for the imagination. But it disturbs me that that space might be full of reductive stock images, of received generalizations about black people in the US, even while one amazing quality of scrapbooks and notebooks is the range of quirky interests they embody. And does this work rescue a life’s work carelessly discarded, or does it expose something a person meant to throw away?

Does anyone know of similar projects, with some grounding in historical documents, but which develops them freely, in an imaginative rather than historical dimension?

 

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