Artist, Activist, Archivist Lenn Keller (1951-2020)

Dear Friends of ONE Archives at the USC Libraries, 

We are sharing the news and mourning the passing of Lenn Keller, artist, activist and founder of the Bay Area Lesbian Archives (2014). Keller was, in her own words, a “proud butch lesbian.” She was born in Evanston, Illinois, moved to New York, and then to the West Coast in 1975. She lived in Santa Cruz and then San Francisco before settling in the East Bay, where she found a community of like-minded Black lesbian activists. Keller earned a BA from Mills College in 1984. In addition to bringing her camera everywhere, she directed short films and loved to dance at Bay Area lesbian bars, such as Ollie’s and The Jubilee. She started collecting flyers and other ephemera at all of these events. 

After years of battling illness and personal struggle, she created the exhibition, Fierce Sistahs: Art, Activism, and Community of Lesbians of Color in the Bay Area, 1975-2000 at the San Francisco Public Library in 2010. The next year, her portraits of gender non-conforming youth appeared in Suggestions of a Life Being Lived at SF Camerawork. More recently, they appeared as part of DePaul University’s exhibition, One Day this Kid Will Get Larger and in Oakland Museum of California’s 2019 show Queer California: Untold Stories. In addition to her photographic work, Keller also produced two short films, Ifé (1993) and Sightings (1995). She was also working on a feature film, A Persistent Desire, which looked at the evolution of butch-femme identities and dynamics.

In 2014, Keller started the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project in an effort to record and preserve the legacies of Bay Area lesbians and their history—extending her reach beyond her Black community and her own art. After Keller suffered from some health issues, became homeless for a brief time and struggled to care for her own archival materials, and almost lost everything, she realized how important this history was to collect and keep. 

I got to know Lenn through my dissertation research. While writing a chapter on Aché: A Journal for Black Lesbians and the Black lesbian artists in the Bay Area, I was drawn to Lenn’s cover image for the February/March 1991 issue of Aché where she stares back at the camera in her photographic self-portrait. Inside the issue, Lenn expresses the tensions involved in representation in her essay, “Underexposed: The Photographic Image and Black Lesbian Identity.” There is power in becoming visible, but there is also safety in remaining invisible. One of only three photographic covers in Aché’s history and the only photographic self-portrait on a cover, this self-portrait is testimony to Keller’s courage and determination to represent herself despite her fears. She explains that, despite her anxiety, “We need these images to examine who we've been, who we are now, and who we’re becoming, in spite of all the oppressive forces that daily bear down on us.” For Keller, these representations were an act of resistance. They served as a testament to her lived reality and her struggle for survival. While the quote refers to this image, it seems that now, looking back, the sentiment equally applies to everything she saved and was working to create—through her own artistic practice and her work with the Bay Area Lesbian Archives. 

Alexis Bard Johnson
Curator, ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

Here are a few links for more information: 

Bay Area Lesbian Archives 

Remembering Lenn Keller, founder of Bay Area Lesbian Archives" by Liam O’Donoghue, East Bay Yesterday, December 18, 2020.

Lenn Keller: Keeping the Bay Area’s Black Lesbian History Alive” by Sarah Hotchkiss, KQED, April 11, 2019.

Lenn Keller and the roots of the East Bay’s lesbian of color community,” Podcast, East Bay Yesterday, January 8, 2019. 

Lesbian archive preserves a time when the Bay Area changed radically” by Annie Vainshtein, SF Chronicle, May 25, 2018.  

We thought the world we built would be forever: An Interview with Lenn Keller” by Adrienne Sky Roberts, OpenSpace SFMoMA, June 16, 2012.


Image Credit (left to right): Lenn Keller in 1976, Front Cover of Aché 1991, Lenn Keller with Camera 1980s.