knick knacks: notes on a curatorial practice

also knickknack, nicknack, “a pleasing trifle, toy,” 1570s, a reduplication of knack (n.) “ingenious device, toy, trinket” (1530s), a specialized sense of knack (n.) “stratagem, trick.” (from the Online Etymology Dictionary)

i buy back all the spirits turned into toys:

young man and woman sitting on a log

missing her leg

young girl scouring pad holder

very pretty piece. hard to find! 

hangs on wall $135.00

polly black cloth doll

history is unknown

girl holdin umbrella

there are a few nicks & small chips here & there

but nothing glaring & gives it a little bit of character 

native with baby on back 

baby's head reglued, but looks good

i buy back all the spirits turned into tricks:

old novelty celluloid black minstrel lips with envelope

the two are damaged as pictured

the envelope had tears

the lips and teeth have cracks from age

postcard: lovely black negro children play jump rope game

unused. near mint

black figurine outhouse

children on potty

bisque, england (1995 price)

i make an altar on the windowsill facing east, without knowing:

tiger eye          rose quartz                  pine comb                   seashell

grams was healer. midwife of dreams. collector. grams a curator. kept hundreds of small ceramic and glass objects she brought home from her travels. from thrift stores or given as gifts. knick knacks in the living and dining rooms of the house in ambler. some in a china closet. some on a special table, low and brown, with two levels that uncle alvin made with his hands when he was a boy in woodshop. every saturday morning, each knick knack was shined with windex, and the table was polished with pledge. each object carefully re-arranged around one another, a tiny, rag-tag community of fragile figures. all presided and watched over by a white jesus in a gold-plated frame of thorns by the front door.

a museum on maple street. never saw a knick-knack get broken. missing legs were secretly glued back on. assistant aunts would add to the special collection. my aunt sook added bawdy items from her own travels, ashtray mementos from a.c. one was a voluptuous rosy-pink blonde woman with a doll face and rubies for nipples, her legs spread open to create an ashtray. a use of the erotic. there was a slogan written on the bottom of the ashtray. something racy, naughty, boardwalk gauche. this, too, was put on the pedestal table with gram’s other prized knickknacks:

duo of prayer hand salt-shakers – one in white, one in negro

milky white sugar bowl with lid

glass bird with striped beak

candy dish full of regulated jellybeans

yellow canary standing on oval of green

tiny silver tea service

jack & jill holding hands

jack & jill with bucket of butter

cat with pirate’s boots and gold earring


mammy head s&p. yellow and red. excellent $45.00 

in very nice shape!

game knock down, mammy 

with 10-in. figures on plank, pair ~illus (1998 price) 

vintage mammy memo minder

not very old. condition is fair $15.00 

paper pad missing

i remember a black panther, the biggest of all the figurines. at least a foot long or more, with a painted red tongue and green eyes, passing for emeralds. on the low prowl, rabbits wearing bonnets seemed to look away.

and i’ve inherited coats & jewelry. sookie’s jewelry came to me in ziploc: the fake gold bracelet with the lion’s head. the plaid button clip-on. a pair of butterflies i’ve only seen the likes of tina turner wear. she gave me a ring made from welded pennies. said it was from a boy she loved who died, but the pennies said 1980, a love too late. she also left behind clown figurines and romance novels that live like phantoms on my bookshelf with all the other knowledge of self. the last thing she gave me was a hug juice barrel like a hand grenade.

like morrison’s sula, sookie and grams were “artists without art forms,” curators without museums (and better for it). grams’ knickknacks are now scattered among different houses. my mother gave me the yellow canary, and i dream about the panther in her attic. i dream of resurrecting the museum of maple street.

what is a special collection and who deems it so?

where are the archives that heal us rather than harm us?

how can our expeditions into the past not be solo journeys? How can they require and invite company and solidarity?

when you look back at a caricature of yourself, how do you insist on self-love and refuse evil?

how do we share these items and honor the dust of despair on them?

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Yolanda Wisher is a poet, musician, educator and curator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of Monk Eats an Afro and the co-editor of Peace is a Haiku Song. A Cave Canem and Pew Fellow, she was the 3rd Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. She is currently the Co-Director of Curatorial Programs and Curator of Spoken Word at Philadelphia Contemporary.

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