One South to Another — Looking for LaToya Ruby Fraizer

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In Ju Young Ban’s drawing Us (2009), two intricate and vibrant anthropomorphic forms made on separate sheets of paper are tethered together by a single delicate line. In Us Ban’s minute mark-making pulses with life, the forms charged with palpable energy and rich undulating color. Suggesting the connection between two people, or more abstractly two beings, the work is poetically intimate, and open to interpretations from the personal to the collective. The drawing prompts consideration of perpetual connection despite factors of physical distance, isolation, and the passage of time. Ban’s drawing visualizes the invisible yet omnipresent forces that persist in our lives and the lives of others, prompting viewers to personally consider the physical and emotional ties that bind them to people and places.

For Latoya Ruby Frazier, whose work is concurrently on view in Incheon, South Korea and Atlanta, Georgia, photography offers a means to explore her connection to her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania and the physical and emotional effects of place on her family. Currently, both the Incheon Women’s Art Biennale: Terra Incognita and Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s 15 x 15 Anniversary Acquisitions Exhibition, exhibit pieces from a body of work that spanned nine years. The photographs utilize a hybrid combination of portraiture and social-documentary to explore Frazier’s household. As they provide an intimate look into the interior, domestic, and psychological space of three women, they also detail the generational effects of deindustrialization in a mill town. As a collaborative project between Frazier, her mother, and her grandmother, the photographs and video reveal both a personal and collective account of people in industrial-dependent cities across America.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Mom Making an Image of Me, 2008, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches. © LaToya Ruby Frazier.

Located in the town of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, the three generations of women in Frazier’s family grew up during distinct phases of Braddock’s rise and subsequent deterioration after the mill’s closure. Over nine years, Frazier returned home, continuously documenting her hometown and her family—a tie that’s proven an enduring tether to the people and places that constitute home.

In a statement given to the New Museum for the 2009 Younger than Jesus show, she states that in this series she intended to expose the roles that three women in her family’s household play and the complexity of their shifting relationships. Raised primarily by her grandmother, it was with the camera that her relationship with her mother evolved. The works became a site for personal development, reflection, and agency as the camera became a platform for points of connection. Together, Frazier notes, they’ve thought a lot about negotiating power and agency, and the relationship between the viewer, the photographer, and the subject. Correspondingly, the ways in which the photographs explore personal identity, memory, and relationships reflect both body and social politics.

At the Women’s Art Biennale (WAB), Frazier’s work was exhibited within an exhibition that explored, in part, the contemporary complexity of intimacy with subjects ranging from Second Life simulations to video documentation of Craigslist encounters. In this context, the photographs and video become intertwined with contemporary forms of alienation, and personal boundaries between self and other as expressed on an international scale. In the statement accompanying her work, Frazier explained, “Family secrets, hidden history, and constant silence defined our coexistence.” Visualizing place as the interior space of her family’s home, details like the physical division of a wall and perpetually shifting glances reveal the complexity between emotional distance and physical proximity. At the same time, there is an inextricable link between her family’s condition and the economic wake of the former mill.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Me and Mom’s Boyfriend Mr. Art, 2005, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches. © LaToya Ruby Frazier.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Momme Portrait Series (Shadow), 2008, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches. © LaToya Ruby Frazier.

Socially, her work resonates with the contemporary reality of Incheon and its neighboring city Seoul, as their progress, implicated in the demise of towns like Braddock, trace a global history of labor. Concluding the wall text is a quote by Frazier stating that the series is “Ultimately…about being an American living in a capitalistic society and what happens when towns are abandoned because of global corporations.” Global corporations are rooted in Korea and throughout Asia. Cities like Seoul and Incheon are developing at a rapid pace, which is dramatically changing the domestic and public spheres. Mega malls and apartment complexes are replacing local neighborhoods and markets —actions that are currently meeting resistance from both political and artistic sectors. Thus, while Frazier’s photographs visualize the specificity of her experience, they also act as a prompt to recognize a connection between the marginalized or invisible local networks that suffer from corporate growth.

A recent article by Sunjung Kim in ArtAsiaPacific called “Dispatch Seoul” outlines the role of rapid urban development, artists’ reactions to it, and the growth of art spaces like Seoul Art Space Geumcheon, where I was in residence. With a reputation of hosting experimental artists, the local collectives at SASG, like Listen to the City, Okin Collective, and Michelangelo Pistoletto Band, create works that operate beyond the boundaries of traditional studios as they respond to the politics of urban space, the loss of landscape and neighborhoods, and dominating power structures. The visiting international artists took up these same issues. Commissioned for an exhibition titled Urban Research, their explorations manifested into various articulations of labor in which they explored ideas about how, whose, and what types of work are valued.

Sheila Pree Bright, Untitled #3 (from the Suburbia series), chromogenic print, 24 x 30 inches.

At Spelman College Museum of Art, Frazier’s work is included within a nexus of works that visualize the construction of the racialized and gendered body, primarily through self-representation and images of the domestic sphere. Here, Frazier’s photographs become part of an evolving narrative expressed in visual art by women of the African Diaspora. Displayed amongst Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s Spoken Softly with Mama (2008) and Sheila Pree Bright’s Suburbia series, Frazier’s articulations of place-based identity are contextualized within diverse images of the domestic sphere and intergenerational relationships. In Atlanta, where representations of race and politics of race are intertwined into its fabric, the personal agency explored in the creation of this project in turn expands the reach of identity politics. As Frazier and her mother redefine the roles of subject, artist, and viewer, their bodies become an opportunity to analyze the function of the gaze, as well as a site for projection and the construction of identity.

In the introduction to the current e-flux issue entitled “Global Conceptualism Revisited,” Boris Groys discusses how contemporary artists are creating new strategies for political engagement, stating, “This erasure of the line dividing public commitment from personal vicissitudes has become an important element of contemporary art practice.” Frazier’s work exemplifies this strategy, straddling that line between documenting the complex realities of the familial relationships, personal catharsis, and social commitment. Frazier’s project successfully fluctuates between personal and collective experience, and illustrates how the private sphere can implicate social issues within the public sphere. Groys also says, ““Every contemporary cultural migrant—and the international art scene is full of migrating artists, curators, art writers—has innumerable chances to experience how his or her body is situated and subjectified in and through different cultural, ethnic, and political contexts.” This is an apt characterization for cultural producers with ever-increasing opportunities for international residencies and biennales, as well as an applicable assessment of their work. The meanings in Frazier’s works not only engage with the curatorial themes of the exhibitions in which they are included, but also take on new relationships to cultural, ethnic, and political contexts of the cities they are exhibited within. As such it is becoming increasingly important for analyses of art in the public sphere to reach beyond the limits of form, content, and physical environment in order to consider how changing contexts of place affect meaning.