On Memorial Day weekend, as part of the Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality held at the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building and organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, I put up my first ever installation of my archival work on Langston Hughes’ stay in Turkestan (the pre-1921/pre-Stalin term for Central Asia). The exhibit was simply an attempt to recreate the magic of entering into an archive. Since 2014, my archival research at Yale Library’s Bienecke Rare Books and Manuscripts archive and at The Schomburg yielded rich finds of poetry and diary notes that hadn’t been published. I wanted to share this research experience based on chance finds, dreams (yes I dreamt of the Uzbek poet Karim Ahmedi and later found his untranslated poems, which I translated for Lost & Found), and opening envelopes I wasn’t supposed to (during my residency at the Schomburg, which resulted in a find of articles and covers of chapbooks). The academic community has been very supportive of my work — but the love I felt reaching a nonacademic audience was so rewarding. I shared stories with families, travelers on their way to Central Asia, humanitarian workers, artists, spiritual healers, old friends, new friends, and accidental tourists wandering through the exhibit.
I shared this immersive archival experience at the Smithsonian with my colleague Kai Krienke, who installed his work on Jean Sénac, along with our Lost & Found editor, Kate Tarlow Morgan.
It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had as a scholar sharing my academic work. On a bare wall, with a strip of muslin hanging, I projected photos taken by Hughes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from one projector. From another, I projected just his notes and poems written for him. The tech support gentleman said he thought it was too simple for an exhibit. But he patiently worked with me. In the end, the fabric added a haunting feel to the photos. The rest of the experience I will share in photos: