Watermelon, Archives, and Fabulation

Screenshot from The Watermelon Woman. Courtesy of Cheryl Dunye 1996.

The article contains spoilers. The film discussed, The Watermelon Woman (1996), is available on Kanopy through the AUB libraries and on Criterion Channel.

The Watermelon Woman (1996) is Cheryl Dunye’s first feature film. The film traverses the Philadelphian queer scene with indie visuals and 90s fashion and unrolls Cheryl’s relationships with her friends, at the video store where she works and within the larger community. Cheryl wants to work on a film. She takes a lot of footage around the city, but her only interesting lead is the elusive Black actress she watched in early Hollywood films credited as “The Watermelon Woman”. She is determined to learn who she is and to tell her story beyond the reel. But she is also a 20 something year old figuring out her own life. The narrative is not as ironed out as it reads; neither the film’s nor mine. In this article, I construct a particular ecology of movements, texts, and people around the film and its larger project. This is but one possibility— like archives, like history, and like identity.

I want to start with feminist art formations. In an interview with art historian Huey Copland, Zoey Leonard defines feminist art as work that asks critical feminist questions on power and agency bringing whole conceptual frameworks as points of view. The view in question is the viewer’s experience of the world and position in it. Such work gives space and thus power to feminist, individual, and queer gaze(s) because to her “looking [/experiencing] is constructed historically, socially, politically.” And so, Dunye starts the film with her questions about the life of The Watermelon Woman who soon turns out to be Fae Richards. 

Cheryl explains her project. Courtesy of Cheryl Dunye 1996.

Dunye situates her work in the New Queer Cinema moment, Black lesbian subjectivity in the 1990s, and around the beginnings of indie film. 

“New Queer Cinema” was coined by B. Ruby Rich in a 1992 landmark Sight & Sound article where she discusses the political atmosphere of the film industry at the time. Having been to the key film festivals that year, she writes about the “flock of films that were doing something new, renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image.” While the films did not share a singular “aesthetic vocabulary or strategy or concern,” Rich notes a social constructionism that grappled with the very absence of any previous Queer Cinema. 

The multiplicity is a clear reflection of how the Gay Liberation movement has been far from monolithic and how different LGBTQ subgroups were exploring the organization, representation, and alliances that best work for them since the 1970s. The history at hand is one of gender, race, and sexuality intertwined and lived as such. The 1970s and 1980s saw extensive debates and philosophies of Lesbian Feminism (a historically contingent term here) that, however, largely gave way to third-wave feminist formulations such as sex-positivity, international solidarity, and reproductive justice in the 1990s. This would not have been possible without Black feminist work across sexuality articulated in the Combahee River Collective (1974-1980) statement on their work and position in the movements of the time as Black feminist lesbians. 

In a recent interview, Dunye describes her work as a “weaving together”. While this sounds like a term in passing, Dunye employs it as a methodology. I saw this as a deliberate feminist decision as I learned that she initially wanted to do video art which her early short films experiment with. Cheryl in the movie is a version of Dunye herself, and so is Fae in a past life maybe. This layered portrayal is incredibly productive. In her work on curated storytelling, professor of sociology Sujatha Fernandes evokes what narrative theorist Portelli wrote about the strategic synthesis of the personal, political, and collective in storytelling. This is what Dunye does. She asserts that New Queer Cinema was/is about narrated identities. The indie-pendence of her works lies in her set up of fact and fiction which came to be known as a new genre that she endearingly dubbed the “Dunyementary”. It is brilliantly characterized by the switch between monologues, interviews, and scenes. In the same interview, she explains that indie-pendence is also about the comradery she gets to build with international filmmakers and audiences beyond the capitalistic model of cinema in the US.

The narration is layered as well. As Cheryl discovers more about Fae, her own life and relationships unfold in metanarrative arcs. The film critically explores interracial relationships and dynamics, police racial profiling, and Black erasure in Hollywood, academia, and literature as Anoushka Ratnarajah wrote for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. It indeed presents much to unpack historically, sociologically, and aesthetically. But I need to leap forwards to the end. The film concludes with this frame:

Screenshot from The Watermelon Woman. Courtesy of Cheryl Dunye 1996.

This does and does not change everything. Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards is not entirely fictional. She stands in for the women who lived a life like hers and for any possibility thereof. Zoey Leonard was the photographer who created the archive about Fae’s life. She and Dunye practiced their gazes and staged every scene in every photo that appears in the film. The archive then took on a life of its own and was circulated in the art world and the press. In his interview with Leonard, Copland uses the notion of critical fabulation as coined by Saidiya Hartman to theorize Leonard and Dunye’s work on the Fae Richards Archive. Critical fabulation is the methodological writing Hartman has produced about the people trapped and killed during the trans-Atlantic slavery. She merges archival work with fictional narratives to show the ways in which the present remains entangled with the past. 

The Watermelon Woman thus speaks to the construction of every archive in its fabulation. As Hartman explores, we cannot talk about the potential of archives without talking about their limits. The Fae Richards Archive is full of gaps. The photos that would have been taken of Fae during her career resurface the easiest in the film. Personal photos later appear through stories told by fans and scholars but most importantly by her life partner June Walker who provides Cheryl with the most substantive account. “Real” archives however also make it into the story. Leonard disclosed in the interview that the vast under-representation of Black lesbian history left much up to them to imagine and fabulate. They based some of the fragments on Dorothy Arzner, Butterfly McQueen, and Josephine Baker.

Zoe Leonard, The Fae Richards Photo Archive. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo retrieved from artnet.

Cheryl makes a point of expressing what Fae Richards’ life and lesbian relationships mean for her and that they mean hope. My fascination with this film largely comes from what it means for me. It is the New Queer but it is also canon that de-centralizes whiteness and heteronormativity. It is the possibility of a history that speaks to us, any history at that. This is one of the times we need to make/unearth our own histories. Sarah Schulman, who fittingly plays an archivist in the film, proposes a different leafing-through archives to produce lesbian histories. Many womxn refrained from identifying as lesbians and/or feminists in the past because of their time, location, and even convictions. Schulman writes that her proposal frees identity histories from identity-based cataloging and categorization in archival infrastructures. It opens up the possibility to see those identities as performed and lived, not just named. This all brings to memory Huda Elsadda’s work in The Women and Memory Forum which could propel the conversation forwards. She spoke at the Forum on Alternative Archival Practices 2018 in Beirut about feminist archives as alternative knowledge production with the potential to resist hegemonic and usually state-propagated knowledge about history. She concludes that feminist archival work is a vehicle we can use to move from the margins to the center. May we know, make, and become feminist histories. 

Academic references

Copeland, Huey. “Photography, the Archive, and the Question of Feminist Form: A Conversation with Zoe Leonard”. Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, vol 28, no. 2, 2013, pp.177-189. Duke University Press, doi:10.1215/02705346-2209952. Accessed 29 June 2020.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus In Two Acts”. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal Of Criticism, vol 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1-14. Duke University Press, doi:10.1215/-12-2-1. Accessed 29 June 2020.

Schulman, Sarah. “Making Lesbian History Possible: A Proposal.” Imagining Queer Methods, edited by Amin Ghaziani and Matt Brim, NYU Press, New York, 2019, pp. 294–300. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv12fw6h1.18. Accessed 29 June 2020.

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