Throughout the “racial reckoning” that began in the US after George Floyd and other unarmed Black citizens were killed by police—and for most of their lives—Black people have had to endure brutal images in the media of violence against people of color. RISD grad student and Presidential Fellow Zoë Pulley MFA 23 GD is working to counteract the effects of this bombardment of negativity via the Black Joy Archive, an online collection of positive images of Black Americans.
“The archive is intended to serve as a therapeutic practice in self-preservation and self-esteem for Black people,” Pulley says. “This collective action can be an outlet for Black individuals to heal through lifting our voices and giving space for our experiences to be seen, while also defying the notion that Black lives can solely be viewed in a negative vacuum of struggle.”
With funding from a Student Provisional Ubiquity Research (SPUR) grant awarded by RISD Research, Pulley just completed Black Joy Archive, vol. 2, and she recently celebrated its release at the Ace Hotel in Brooklyn with contributors, many of whom are also members of the RISD community. “Two years after the project’s launch, its intention remains the same,” she says, “to amplify stories, connect community and reject racialized pathologies that continue to flatten the varied experiences of Black life.”
Submissions range from poems and essays about what Black joy looks like at this moment in time to 1970s-era snapshots of family vacations and happy babies eating cake to paintings and photographs by Black artists sharing personal and historical moments.
Pulley spent the spring gathering these images, redesigning the website and creating 50 limited-edition books for sale with guidance from mentors and Graphic Design faculty members Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab, Bethany Johns and Ryan Waller 03 GD. In response to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, she intends to donate the proceeds to SisterSong, a reproductive justice collective focused on women of color. “I’m always asking myself what I can do with my skill set and resources to make a positive impact,” she says.
Johns cannot say enough about Pulley’s contributions to RISD and to her field. “She has availed herself of every opportunity to take part in RISD’s rich community and seek out meaningful resources to support her work,” Johns notes. “She is helping to shape the critical decolonization narrative within institutional spaces, within our department and the field of graphic design, and within RISD’s overall Social Equity and Inclusion initiative.”
Indeed, Pulley has become a driving force at RISD and beyond, creating original and thoughtful work in studio and making the time to contribute to RISD’s first-ever Black Biennial. She is also working with Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Rene Payne 83 GD on a digital platform for The Emmett Till Memory Project honoring the late Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 when he was only 14 years old.
In the fall, Pulley will begin her thesis year at RISD. And, although she says she’s attempting to take time to rest and recenter in order to avoid burnout, she does have a couple of exciting projects on the horizon. In February an exhibition she is designing for Harvard University’s Houghton Library will open, and in March she’ll complete a printed exhibition catalogue (also funded by RISD Research) of last winter’s Black Biennial.
“When applying to graduate programs, I knew I was interested in taking this time to explore the legacy of my people, including my own family’s relation to the great migration and how this history had occurred within both my paternal and maternal family trees,” says Pulley. “It is incredibly important for BIPOC individuals to be afforded the time and opportunity to contextualize their identities and personal narratives within the larger canons of their areas of study.”
Visit the Black Joy Archive to purchase a book or learn more about Pulley’s work.