Camille Billops with cat and one of her sculptures, 1971. Photo: Emory University.

Camille Billops (1933–2019)

Printmaker, sculptor, and documentary filmmaker Camille Billops, whose momentous films Suzanne Suzanne (1982) and Finding Christa (1991) took up some of society’s deepest-running taboos concerning motherhood and black trauma, died on Monday, June 1. She was eighty-five years old.

Finding Christa grapples with Billops’s decision to place her four-year-old daughter Christa for adoption and the lingering implications revealed by the adult Christa, who reached out to Billops and appears in the film. “Why did you leave me?” she asks. “It’s been so long since I felt complete.” Though the narrative eludes easy answers, at one point Billops says: “I was trying to give her something else, because I felt she needed a mother and a father. I’m sorry about the pain it caused Christa as a young child, but I’m not sorry about the act.”

Lorraine O’Grady wrote of the film in the January 1992 issue of Artforum: “It may be the most artistically interesting of the films I’ve seen. It expands the concept of the documentary into something for which I still can’t find a name [and] seems to define the revolutionary potential in what Richard Rorty calls ‘abnormal discourse,’ the new thing that can happen when one is either unaware of or sets aside the rules.” It won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.

Billops was born in 1933 to parents who had migrated to California to escape the violence of the Jim Crow South. She grew up in Los Angeles; studied at the University of Southern California and the City College in Los Angeles; and in 1965, moved to New York City with her husband James B. Hatch, with whom she codirected and coproduced films including Finding Christa (Christa’s father abandoned Billops shortly before their marriage). Billops was active as an artist throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and belonged to collectives such as Women Artists in Revolution with May Stevens, Faith Ringgold, and Elizabeth Catlett, among others. Billops, who taught at Rutgers University and City University of New York, was included in 2017’s “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

“We were fighting so hard, but they wouldn’t let us in,” Billops said about the institutional art world at this time. “So we said, ‘Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in on.’”

In 1968, she established the Hatch-Billops Collection, comprising over 6,000 books, 1,200 scripts, and more than 10,000 photographic records that document the lives and work of black American artists such as Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, Ed Bullins, and Zora Neale Hurston. Since 1981, she and Hatch had published Artist and Influence: The Journal of Black American Cultural History. The journal features transcripts, interviews, and panel discussions with artists, which often took place at their SoHo loft in New York. 

“It is important that we write our own histories,” Billops told The Topic in an extensive profile this year. “Otherwise, they will say we were never here.”