Radical Curation: Taking Care of Black Women’s Narratives

Radical curation has meant the validation and celebration of our existence.

by Nehal El-Hadi on May 19th, 2015

The etymological root of curate is from the Latin cura, which means to take care. Curator / curate / curation are words that get applied and mis-applied constantly in an age of info-glutted social media content production. Curators collect and take care of objects, information, histories, traditions, knowledge. They research and categorise, organise collections into stories, present narratives about collections and highlight themes and connections.

“The curator’s job has been, among other things, to find the through line. She provides a practical function, telling us who to trust with our attention; moreover, she fulfills an emotional-psychological one, by making sense of a world overrun with entities and ideas. But once curators themselves proliferate, and the curators need curating, and the notion of “curation” becomes so romantic that dilettantes assume the pose until it’s commonplace – then everyone and no one is a curator, and curation is everything and nothing, and nothing makes sense again. What happens when there are no more arbiters of taste, no rank of persons who, through instinct, experience and training, know best?”

– The Rise of the Curator in Popular Culture, Alexandra Molotkow

Curatorship is a professional position; time spent in formal institutions into the doctoral years, followed by years of internships, mentorships, training, before one can wear curator as a professional title. Like many other professions that have reified professional knowledge and formal training, curation has been irrevocably altered by the internet in two major ways: people have access to limitless information about objects, and time becomes non-linear – what is past is not only prologue, but body and epilogue too:

“The curatorial dialogue, however, is useful in intervening and disrupting the repeating landscape, creating innovative ways of mediating time and space.” JGV / WAR. Heuristic Curating pamphlet, 2015.

Although many people online apply the term curation to what can more accurately be called branding, the Internet has also provided a platform for radical curation. Curation, in collecting and organising artworks or objects, especially as housed in state-sanctioned/supported institutions of culture, is powerful in the creation and dissemination of narratives. These narratives usually promote already-existing dominant narratives, which problematize, drown out, reify or make invisible alternate narratives. Radical curation is the use of curatorial practices to present, with care, a themed collection of art(efacts) that represent oft-unheard and sometimes disruptive chronicles or groups.

Tumblr launched in 2007, and provided a platform that not only facilitated but invited curation. Themed tumblogs proliferated: fan sites gathered multitudes of images of artists and bands, but also documented artist activities, such as photos Drake liked; surrealist sites, like Bread People and its spin-off, Cheese People; and archival sites, that collated information on out-of-date TV shows.

What also emerged were sites radical in the way they framed and presented narratives.


Vintage Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainer presents archival images of “glamorous” black people, celebrities and otherwise. Gainer started posting images she had collected on Tumblr, and over time built up feedback and a following that culminated in the publishing of a book. While Tumblr-books are not rare, the subject matter here is: The documentation and celebration of historical black culture.

“… Ultimately, no matter how brilliant or attractive, women of color historically were undervalued, and often invisible, in mainstream celebrity culture. It is with this in mind that the writer Nichelle Gainer set out to document the visual history of black female entertainers, businesswomen, writers and socialites, initially in a social media project and now in “Vintage Black Glamour” (Rocket 88).”

– Maurice Berger,  New York Times

With seemingly diametrically opposing subject matter, Black Girls Are From the Future is owned by Renina Jarmon. The site presents a diverse and varied material source – photographs, videos, essays, all intended to reflect a particular type of black female experience. Jarmon’s overarching manifesto for Black Girls Are From the Future clearly identifies her goal in creating the movement: “When I think about being a Black girl from the future, my mind goes to the contradiction that many Black girls and women encounter which is that we are often simultaneously hyper visible and invisible at the same time. This can be a very difficult mode of engagement in the world, because you KNOW THAT YOU EXIST even if people see you and choose NOT to recognize you.” The associated tumblog black girls are from the future collects together artefacts that reflect and reinforce the counter-narrative of the magical survival powers of black girls. Jarmon’s curating is not only the presentation of a collection of related artefacts, it is a presentation of evidence that black girls must be from the future because that is the only possible way they must have survived until now. Her curation presents a narrative of magic and survival.


The use of the word curation is contended, mainly by those who are associated with the professional fields. “This is not curation!” they cry, annoyed by the mainstreaming of the term. Rather, they posit that what is happening online is editorial rather than curatorial, or worse, commercial rather than creative. Yet curatorial processes include the researching of objects/artefacts, the collection or bringing together of these objects, the discovery of themes that connect, unite or encompass the collection, the construction of a narrative and the presentation of the collection accompanied by the curator’s statement; digital curation differs from editing or branding by the inclusion of all these steps.

While reading “An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet” by Mel Buchanan of the Hermitage Museum, I came across two sentences that resonated with me, that support my belief in online radical curatorial practices. The author writes: “I believe curating is the passing of a torch. It is the care and protection of cultural property.”

Narratives about a people are cultural property. Stories are cultural property. Jarmon and Gainer are brave digital curators employing radical curatorial practices in celebration of the beauty of black people, and they are taking care of those narratives.

Curation is not a default. The Internet has created a space for the curation of subjects and objects oft-ignored. For black women in particular, radical curation has meant the validation and celebration of our existence.