The Art in the Archive: Sourcing Black History and Heritage at Tufts

SMFA at Tufts student Julie Francois discusses her search through archival materials that illustrate the Black experience on the Hill across the years

Recently, when Julie Francois was combing through old records at the Tufts Archival Research Center, she struck gold: a Polaroid photo of Tracy Chapman from the mid-1980s, when the now-famous musician was a student at Tufts. 

Francois’s discovery happened to be a few days after Chapman performed at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. “It was this image from the past, but it felt so relevant,” says Francois, A24. “I brought it to one of my classes, and it sparked a discussion about her presence at the Grammys, the song she performed, and the fact that she was a Tufts alum.” (Chapman graduated from Tufts in 1987 and was recognized with an honorary degree from the university in 2004.)

self-portrait of Julie Francois

Self-portrait of Francois (2024)

For Francois, it’s not unusual for images from the past to resonate in the present. A senior at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, Francois works in a variety of mediums, including photography, graphic arts, printmaking, and painting, to explore Black history and the inherited legacies that can shape individual identities.

Her focus on archival material began with a search through old family photos during her sophomore year at Tufts. She was looking for images to use in a collage that would represent her personal history as an American whose parents had emigrated from Haiti. 

The art that resulted from that search includes photos of herself and her family members contained within a red and blue rectangle reminiscent of the Haitian flag. Another collage she made explores her and her siblings’ Catholic upbringing through the use of family photos, religious imagery, and artifacts used in sacred practices. 

Working on those pieces inspired Francois to think bigger. “I wanted to expand my use of archives in order to speak to a broader audience,” she says. “I started to see how archival material could unite people of color and unite people across generations.”

That’s when Francois began exploring the Tufts archives, searching for photos that could represent the experiences of Black Jumbos. Once she had a collection of images in hand, she approached Precious Musa, a program coordinator at Tufts’ Africana Center, about setting up a workshop to collaborate with others on a collage. 

Tufts Now caught up with Francois to find out more about the artwork resulting from that collaboration—an artwork that now hangs in the Africana Center—the interests that drive Francois’s artmaking, and the importance of representing Black experiences in art. 

How would you describe yourself as an artist? 

I was originally a painter and a drawer, but I was interested in telling stories—particularly Black stories—and I began to find painting and drawing to be sometimes too time-consuming to allow me to focus on the narratives I find compelling. 

That’s when I expanded my idea of my work and realized that I identify broadly as a visual artist, a creative person who works with images through a variety of methods—whether that's painting, printmaking, collage, or photography—and that through my art, I want to advocate for the representation of Black subjectivity. 

How did you become interested in using archival materials to tell the stories that you want to tell?

In fall 2021, as I was heading home for Thanksgiving break, I was thinking a lot about what it means to be going home and visiting family and about how I could tell my family story through my artwork. 

At the time, I was taking a class that had gotten me interested in printmaking using photo transfers—transferring images from photos onto fabrics, that sort of thing. I realized I would love to create a piece with my family images and maybe replicate the Haitian flag, depicting family members through time, comparing my grandparents’ time growing up in Haiti with my parents’ and then the next generation: me and my siblings growing up in America. I wanted to tell a story of migration and sacrifice. All that led me to family photos. 

Then I started thinking about expanding my use of archives. I started wondering what other archives could I use, and I thought of how beneficial it could be to use archives that aren't personal to me but that speak to a broader audience. I found that idea really inspiring. 

a photo of an artwork created by Tufts student Julie Francois

“GLJ” (2022) is an artwork by Francois that features hand-printed photolithography on wool fabric and AB rhinestones. This work is drawn from Francois’ family archive; the title refers to the first names of Francois and her siblings, who are shown in layered photographs through the composition. Photo: Jenna Schad

What made you want to use the Tufts archives in particular? How was the use of those materials in a collaborative collage meaningful for you? 

I felt curious about how earlier generations of Black students felt on campus. I wanted a way to represent the experiences of Black Jumbos, and, from my own experience of making collages, I felt like it would be powerful to make it a community effort and build a collage with other Black students. 

The fact that we were able to do so in the Africana Center added to the layers of meaning. We were a group of Black Jumbos in the Africana Center—where so many of the archive’s photos of Black Jumbos were taken—during Black Legacy Month. 

I started out the workshop with a presentation on the history of Black subjectivity, representational justice, photography, and how important archives are to Black legacies and our documentation of our experience. Then, we all interacted with the archives, looking through the images, commenting on them, and creating this collage that would be hung up in the same space where we all collaborated. It was a powerful experience.

If the collage were to become part of the archives, what instructions would you, as one of the artists who created the piece, have for the archivists? What would you want people in the future to know about it?

I think it would be important to remember the way it was created: it's all images of Black students or pictures of Africana Center records dating from 1919 to the 2000s. But the creation of the collage, and the writing and embellishments it contains, are from 2024. It’s an artifact that captures current Black Jumbos looking at the lives of previous Black Jumbos, and it shows their perspective on the legacy of those people from the past.

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