Janelle Ayana Miller
Near the beginning of the pandemic, during the height of quarantine, artist Janelle Ayana Miller began having dreams about her grandmother. The dreams themselves were chronicles of the everyday: morning rituals, church services, the home they shared on the West Side of the city. Miller recounts these dreams with a vividness that imbues them with breath, life and idiosyncratic voice. She is a chronicler not only of Black communal experience but of spirituality; she shapes those often-ineffable sentiments that give love legs. Hers is an artistic practice formed through family and time, the experiences that have led her to this moment and the moments that are yet to break over the horizon.
Miller engages the quiet moments of history, those changes that can come upon you unseen, the details that make one kin. This type of vernacular archival work is a natural position for Miller to occupy as she cites herself as a “grandchild of the Great Migration.” Miller’s work documents the homes and communities that grew from a mass dislocation of time, people and place. Her work is the work of memory, of remembrance; it is the work of the making, keeping, and care of one’s memories.
When I ask Miller about her practice and how she sees herself as an artist, she responds with a thoughtful ambivalence regarding a definitive label, moniker, method or mode of making. For aren’t we all being continuously built and remade, shaped by the people who surround us, moved by the love of those before us? For Miller there is always a potential for transformation. Though she began her practice in photography, she is not bound to image-making and places a high value on experimentation. She uses collage, food, film, poetry, sculpture and found objects to consider elements of Black experience from the vantage point of her Southern roots and her adult life in Chicago. Miller was a 2020-2021 recipient of a SPARK grant and last year alone she both shaped and contributed to exhibitions at the University of Manitoba School of Art, University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life and Acre Projects. In each of her shows she explored facets of Blackness through sound, image and object. Her Instagram archive @beautysupplied is also a repository of images of Black aesthetics: portraiture, collage, fashion and beauty.
Miller tells me that other people are often a catalyst for her art. She is an artist who enjoys collaboration, conversation and the exchange of ideas. Miller goes further and speaks of her own experiences as an arts worker at various organizations around the city of Chicago. She recounts these experiences with joy as they provided a space to bond and know other artists.They were a space in which to feel seen. Miller is an artist who delves deep into the aesthetic, affective, the altogether human need for recognition. The desire for friendship, companionship and understanding. These sentiments were centered in the 2022 exhibition, “Kickin’ The Can” at Acre Projects where Miller’s piece “From Grandma’s House to Yours” functioned as both an archive and object study. The work, a glass case filled with family mementos and cultural artifacts, allowed viewers to see Miller’s family but consider their own. It is work that asks viewers to think of those who have nourished, cared for and loved them.
With her practice centered on Blackness as lived experience and communal archive, Miller sees her work as a conversation across time. What does an archive mean when it’s held in isolation? For Miller, people are archives and archivists, an ever-evolving self. We do not live in isolation, but as Miller says, we are the continuation of all those who came before. When you meet another person, you’re then meeting the continuation of all those who’ve touched and shaped them, you continue to change one another. This phenomenon is perhaps most keenly felt in Miller’s massive, ongoing study of church fans which she’s titled “Building Virtue.”
“Building Virtue” began in 2017 and is Miller’s way of activating the fans as objects of communal use and recognition, but also illuminating their potential for subversion and transformation. The fans are depicted with images of Black children, women, nuclear family units in states of prayer, domestic play, and general pastoral inspired bliss. While such images were ostensibly used in the context of the respectability politics which proliferated within church groups there is much to be said on the power of an archive built upon depictions of Black joy. Miller’s work with Black joy, contentment, memory and family through the material of the everyday is quietly powerful. She is a documentarian of the pleasures that make a life worth living: friendship, warmth and home. Miller’s careful eye in turn renders the ordinary into what it always has been, extraordinary. (Annette LePique)