Kameelah Rasheed

In 1998, my family was displaced and we became homeless. For ten years, our bodies and memories were
fragmented across shelters, motels and the homes of relatives.
As an artist-archivist, my work attempts to reconcile my lived experiences of homelessness and displacement
through archival installations that map conversations between found material culture, ephemeral historical
residue, personal objects, self-authored books and original photography.
I engage with my work as a material-based historian who mines and excavates from the past. I displace
objects from their original context and reorganize them into new transhistorical contexts, a discursive
violence that mirrors the violence my family experienced when we were displaced from our first home and
made to make sense of ourselves in a new spatial context. At 12, I began to collect and organize objects into
loosely rational taxonomies in an attempt to impose order on an otherwise chaotic life of precarious housing.
This ritual and performance of mining that began as a coping mechanism in response to the spatial trauma
of displacement has now become my explicit art practice.
I mine for fragments from sources such as my mother’s jewelry box, my father’s textbooks, dumpsters, train
station floors, institutional archives, eBay, flea markets, spam email folders, infomercials, televangelists
mailing lists, academic journals, obscure poetry etc. These excavated objects operate as ghosts—the past
showing up in the present refusing to leave and begging for another temporal stage on which to perform.
Haunted by these displaced objects, I invite them into installation spaces that range from traditional galleries
to intimate domestic spaces to script new narrative possibilities, to listen for the echoes and to consider the
possibilities of the archive. I am interested in the archive as a site of agency to explore our active and passive
roles in both the production and consumption of hermetic private histories as well as larger public histories.
The bulk of my work has been articulated through an ongoing and iterative series called No Instructions for
Assembly which is an archival installation created through a dense network of objects, images and texts that
comment of the meaning of home, the politics of displacement and the elasticity of the archive.
The first iteration — No Instructions for Assembly, I (2013) creates an ephemeral archive of my family within a
traditional gallery space through the juxtaposition, layering and echoing of over 600 individual found and
personal objects as well as original photography and text. The installation engaged with spatial registers
such as taxonomy grid display to explore the tension between the archive’s promise of narrative order and
the ultimate betrayal of this archival promise as I came to terms with the complexity of memory and the
impossibility of assembling a single corpus of memory from the fragments. In the second (2013) and third
(2014) iterations of No Instructions for Assembly, I installed excerpts in compressed spaces that allowed the
audience to be more intimately engaged and to participate through the creation of their own miniature
archival installations.
In the fourth iteration — No Instructions for Assembly, Activation IV (2014), I designed an intimate domestic
space by recreating my family’s home in a two-bedroom apartment in Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem
within a new housing complex for low-income families and the previously homeless. Composed of over
1,400 individual objects including found and personal objects as well as original photographs, the space also
included an audio loop of my father telling stories about our family as well as his childhood. This archival
installation became a living entity where human engagement with the archival installation activates the
environment. The viewer becomes archivist and performer as they were invited to map their own histories by
installing objects, photographs, letters and other material culture of their own in a way that either establishes


a relationship to the existing materials or begins a new dialogue. This process moves away from audience
participation to audience collaboration, activation and curation to experiment with democratic archiving and
storytelling where the space is no longer created by an institution that dictates what stories are told and the
lens through which they are told, but rather a space where all stories have a home. The archival installation is
a space to interrupt and intervene on the institutional archive to provide discursive territories for the
mapping of histories that are buried in footnotes or margins.