I’ve been a fan of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work for a few years now, and her current show, “A Haunted Capital” (her first solo show in New York), now open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is truly rewarding to behold.
Frazier’s work, deeply self-reflective, tackles her family’s several generations-deep relationship to their hometown, “distressed municipality” Braddock, PA. Viewing her beautifully executed black and white photographs is akin to travelling through time, across the fabrics of America that physically built America; it gives agency to the physiological and social damages wrought upon the citizens of its underprivileged classes throughout the process, and particularly upon the Frazier family.
Maybe this sounds silly, but we can’t just glance at LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work. She wants us to look, and to look deeply. And as we do, she’ll be looking back at us. And so will her mother… and her grandmother. Somehow, though these are fierce photographs of fierce women, the images don’t read as confrontational. Maybe it’s the balance of ferocity with vulnerability, of love with anguish, or maybe it’s Frazier’s motives rattling around in my head and winning.
Braddock, home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill (built in 1875), is now being called a “ghost town”. Yet people still live there. Predominantly poor people… predominantly black people; and Frazier’s family. Her photographs evidence a battle she has undertaken to keep that family, and her city, and the people who built that city, on the pages of history. Braddock’s people are disappearing, its buildings being razed (including the hospital where her family sought treatment) while little is written (and less is done) about its community.
But Braddock is also a toxic environment (literally, and perhaps, metaphorically), and we trace that into the life and death of her grandmother (from cancer), then into the life of her mother (who is battling cancer) and on into Frazier herself, who is battling lupus. As viewers follow the generations of Frazier women back in time, we rebuild our memory of the America those generations lived through, the industrialized America of progress and hope, the America of the civil rights movement, the America of post-industrial decline, and the America of today.
Frazier provides us with a deep, personal journey into her history, into our history, demanding that that history journey into, and onward with, us.
I took a short break while writing this post, and opened up the New York Times’s website. The first headline I read was “Racial Disparities in Life Spans Narrow, but Persist”. The author informs us that, although “…blacks have made notable gains in life expectancy in recent decades….”, federal researchers have found “higher rates of death from heart disease, cancer, homicide, diabetes and infant mortality” than in a comparable analysis of the white population. Uncannily appropriate in consideration of Frazier’s exhibition, perhaps more powerfully so in the wake of George Zimmerman’s recent absolution, Frazier’s work situates itself fully in the reality of these facts.
I can’t help but think of Frazier’s work in terms of dichotomies, as she somehow manages to be gritty and polished simultaneously. She presents unflinching social analysis through an unabashedly personal lens; it disarms viewers with one hand while punching them in the gut with the other. In doing so, Frazier draws us into the profound historical rift between the socio-economic classes and delivers a history lesson on 21st century America. A Haunted Capital runs through August 11, 2013 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Another exhibition, titled Witness opened recently at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, and is on view through October 13, 2013.
-Contributed by Louis M. Schmidt