A Living Archive: Alisha B. Wormsley’s Practice Reclaims and Manifests Space Through Art

Alisha pictured against a stark white background, wearing a flower crown of pink and red roses in their curly hair with a bird tattoo on their left shoulder. They're staring straight into the camera.

by Kami Beckford

Interdisciplinary artist and cultural producer Alisha B. Wormsley has spent her career building a living archive of stories, ideas, and experiences. Sourced from her own life as well as the lives of others, this ever-expanding archive—collectively called children of NAN—manifests throughout her body of work, which focuses on collective memory and coincidences, told through the stories of womxn and mothers of color. 

Wormsley’s work transcends time and place. Her now widely known piece, There Are Black People in the Future, began as a billboard in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood—until the landlord of the building below the sign ordered its removal in 2017, inspiring community protests. Wormsley’s project message have since appeared all across the country—in protest, essays, and as an act of collective manifestation in dreaming. 

For Wormsley, ensuring that there are Black people in the future means focusing on Black mothers. Her current project from the archive is a survival guide that imagines the crafts and technology that will be used and produced by Black womxn of the future. Within a world where Black womxn are taught to take up as little space as possible—after being punished for caring for the earth, each other, their ancestors, and just existing—Wormsley’s work insists that reclaiming this space is essential. To do so means both confronting the harm that created the state of the land we stand on and determining how we can create space for healing. Wormsley’s work reveals that this process—even just speaking the phrase, There are Black People In the Future—can be healing in itself.

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Kami Beckford: How did you start the practice of reclaiming and manifesting? And was it always through art?

Alisha B. Wormsley: I think the origins of my practice have been through art, but I did spend some time as an undergrad studying anthropology. I was archiving things and collecting, and I think that put me on a path for organizing collections. My mom’s a minimalist, and I love hoarding. I remember going to people’s houses in Pittsburgh—people were real hoarders in the ’80s; they would buy buildings just to put stuff in. Property was so cheap to some folks at the time. I would go to my friend’s houses, and they would have TVs on top of TVs and basements full of stuff. I love going through things—even in my grandparents’ house, I would just go through all of our boxes in the basement. I think that was my nature. And then I got more into collecting stories and ideas, and thinking about the correlation between stories, ideas, objects, places, and time—all of those things started to evolve into my artistic practice.

Can you talk about Streaming Space, your interactive visual, sound, and performance installation in Pittsburgh’s Market Square, speaking to the act of the importance of occupying space?

A lot of my work involves identifying spaces, or space, where people can dream, or heal, or reflect. 

When I was a kid, my grandmother walked a lot—that was her superpower, she loved walking. She would walk for hours, and my cousins and I would go with her sometimes. She would be like, “Let’s just imagine this land. Before people were here, before we were here—think about Indigenous people who were here and how it looked.” And we would pretend. I’ve definitely kept that ability to time travel and think about things my grandmother gave me. So I did the same thing with Market Square. 

When I was in high school, my mom got a job in California, and I ended up living with my grandparents in Sewickley, just outside of Pittsburgh. I had to take two public buses to get to school—and the first transferred in downtown Pittsburgh. So I spent a lot of time walking around downtown; in the ‘90s it was a ghost town after 5 pm. But Market Square always had people in it—people surviving, whether that was through homelessness, sex work, or addiction.  

I took my experience of Market Square in high school and thought about time traveling even farther back. This is the center of downtown Pittsburgh. Who was bought and sold there? Which treaties were signed there on that stolen land? I really thought about the expanse of time in this square and what it means to have colonial squares in cities in the first place. I thought about how we could address some of that and work on healing, and how we could incorporate technology into our methods of conveying Black and Indigenous experiences. 

I also thought about SunRa and Alice Coltrane and about land healings, when people come to heal land after certain atrocities. I thought about ancient mysticism and the temples of Mami Wata in Africa that are matriarchal spaces and alchemy that came from Mystery Schools run by Black women. I was thinking about those things and how I could elapse them.

a structure made of metal trusses, constructed to form a pyramid, with a circular LED screen wrapped along the top.  It sits in the center of a plaza. Pictured at night, the screen casts a warm glow on the ground around it.
the same structure made of metal trusses pictured during the day.

Streaming Space installation in Market Square, downtown Pittsburgh. Courtesy of Alisha B. Wormsley.

What was your design process in creating this experience?

My partner Ricardo Robinson and I decided to build a spaceship and make it a pyramid. We thought a lot about shapes. Market Square is a square, obviously, and there’s a huge circle in the center of it. We thought putting the pyramid there resembled the combination in alchemy of circle, square, and triangle. We also thought about how we present other narratives through this installation and connect to the land, space, water, and all the elements.

We showed different videos every hour on LED screens mounted on our twenty-four-foot-tall pyramid truss. Sometimes for an hour, the videos would be just a sunset, or an hour of a fire, or an hour of different bodies of water, like rain and rivers. And sometimes it would show people performing sacred dances, or regular dances—anything to occupy the space. We also had programs, like Felicia Savage Friedman, who has an antiracist yoga practice, hosted a seated yoga class. We had talks, held performances, and featured other artists—anything to really just occupy that space in a way that was equitable and healing.

How do you imagine physical space continuing to become a space for healing?

Physical space has to be more equitably distributed. And there has to be a reckoning with the fact that land was stolen from indigenous people. There also has to be a reckoning with the fact that this land was toiled, made, and built by Black people, with free labor and torture and constant displacement. Not to mention numerous immigrant populations. So I think we’re slowly thinking about how we can create spaces that are really for the public and the people. Even in Market Square, which is a public space, there’s security and there are times when people can’t be there. And the bathrooms in all the businesses have locks. So what does that say? You can’t even use the bathroom! 

What about the people who live around here who don’t have homes? They can’t use the bathroom, and they can’t wash their hands. So how are we as a society really creating equitable space?

Two womxn stand in front of a laundromat in an empty lot. In the foreground, one stands with a powerful stance with a woven basket full of laundry resting on her hip staring into the camera. In the background, another womxn is flapping a white sheet, airing out laundry. The image has a black faded edge, making it look like an old, archival image.
Still from The People are the Light. Courtesy of Alisha B. Wormsley.

One way to start building equity is to build community power. Thinking of Pittsburgh’s Larimer community, I want to jump to your River Roots Rainwater Project, where you have led the community outreach and design process. You’ve said it was one of your favorite projects to work on. What did you take and learn from that project?

Yeah, it was one of my favorite projects because it took so long. It’s really hard to make a new park. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, which I didn’t know about. And we were making a new park that had rainwater structures and bioswales, so everything took a lot longer than it would normally. But that was cool, because I had two years to really hang out in Larimer. It was really cool to get to know the community, the history of Larimer, and work with so many different groups of people. I did programs with every age group—from kids to senior citizens. I’d sit in quilting circles, go to senior luncheons; it was so fun in different ways. 

I learned a lot about sustainable water practices from the architects and hydraulics engineers, but I also learned from the seniors. One woman, Miss Mary, became obsessed with sustainable water practice. Now she’s a spokesperson for rainwater barrels and all that stuff—she’s just amazing. And there were two hydraulics engineers that worked for Heinz that live in that neighborhood, so they had all this information, too. Larimer floods every few years and people have died. How we respond to water as a collective is amazing. Water is so important to us. 

Because my work is collecting and archiving this information, specifically different ways that Black women are working and interacting with water, I learned so much. It was just kind of an incredible experience. It was really fun to take all the things that the community did and made and turn them into art pieces for the park, where they can actually see their hand in the park.

Is there anything specific from the River Roots Rainwater project that you continued to carry further in your work?

For sure. The Larimer project really contributed to the structure and immediacy of supporting Black moms. I started Sibyls Shrine, a residency for Black moms. A lot of the projects that I’ve done in Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Homewood, Larimer, the Northside, Hazelwood, and all these different spaces that are occupied by Black people, have really helped me focus on my work’s message. If I want there to be Black people in the future, like I say, then I have to really focus on moms, Black women. I think that the project in Larimer really highlighted the force of Black motherhood and the extreme weight it carries; it was another kind of step pushing me on this path.

Do you find your work and the creative process healing? Or do you find the necessity of it, like building the survival guide from the children of NAN archive, frustrating? Or both?

I think both. You know, there’s an inherently selfish thing about being an artist; it’s just that my inherent selfishness is really rooted in my identity as a Black woman. Because I’m in that space, I feel like there’s so much necessity. But it’s also healing for me to even think about.

When I curated The People Are The Light [a month-long series of workshops and events in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood] I was working, working, working, but then I got to participate in all of those workshops. It felt like a ”self care month” for me. Even when I’m working, I’m also gaining so much. And I think that’s also why I love collaborating—I’m gaining, I’m experiencing, I’m collecting all of these things to then take to my studio, and make something from it.

 three small rectangular tapestries are woven with brown, black, and white earth toned fibers. They are displayed hanging from sticks.
There is a small circuit board screen displayed on each tapestry, the featured one reads: 'it is right that a black woman should lead. A womb was what God made in the beginning and out of that womb was born time. And all that fills up space so says the beautiful spirit.

Tapestries woven with circuit boards and wires to incorporate text from Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological studies from the children of NAN archive. Courtesy of Alisha B. Wormsley.

You’re building this trove of knowledge that you take back to your studio space and embody into the artifacts you create. This is especially true for children of NAN. What is your process behind the creation and material choices for these artifacts? 

Children of NAN is kind of everything I do—that’s the archive I’m using to make everything.

But right now I’m working on a series of quilts and tapestries. And I’m working on these in response to Zoom.

The experience of Zoom has made me think about these ancient, older forms of technology like tapestries, weaving, quilts. Weaving has been around forever. Quilts are a newer form of technology. It’s this kind of pattern, like we’re making these codes, these mappings. And that’s what technology is, right? It’s a code, it’s mapping, it holds things—like a vessel. So it makes me think about ways in which Black and Brown women are and have been using and creating their own technology. 

There’s so much information in a quilt, or a tapestry, or a bowl; they have DNA, they have memory, they have sounds. It’s also about how our bodies and minds connect to other objects in a way so we’re working together, in tandem. That’s where I am now with the objects that I’m using.

With a body of work that focuses on reclaiming in many ways, what would you like to see reclaimed next?

I would really love for every person—I’m thinking about this starting with Black womxn—but for everyone to have autonomy over their own body. It seems so simple, but it’s so not simple. That in itself would destroy some legacies of ownership over other human beings. I think it’s a good place to start.

Featured image: Self Portrait, courtesy of Alisha B. Wormsley.


About the author

Kami Beckford (she/her) recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied architecture and theater. She organizes with Design as Protest, a collective of designers moving to dismantle the structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression—in practice and in education. You can learn more about her on her website and on Instagram.

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