Art

Photographs of Women That Capture Ancestral Trauma

In Yes, and the body has memory, a group of women photographers grapples with notions of trauma, family, ancestral connections, and the female body.

Leah Edelman-Brier (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Leah Edelman-Brier, “Kin” (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Yes, and the body has a memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”  ― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

SAINT PAUL, Minnesota — With Yes, and the body has memory, Minneapolis-based curator Mara Duvra has put together a challenging group show of women photographers, who are all grappling with notions of trauma, family, and ancestral connections, and the female body.

<em>Yes, and the body has a memory</em> installation view (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)
Yes, and the body has a memory installation view (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)

The photographs in the show aren’t separated by artist. Rather, Duvra arranges them around the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota with an eye toward the spatial relationship between the different works, as well as the thematic flow around the space.

Moving through the room, the viewer follows the journey initiated by each of the artists, but there’s also a larger journey of following all the works.

Lorena Molina, "Sick Chicken" (2017) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)
Lorena Molina, “Sick Chicken” (2017) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)

Salvadoran-American artist Lorena Molina uses her own body as a vehicle for expression in a number of striking works. Standing naked in a shallows creek while holding a chicken, or like a corpse, partially buried in volcanic rock, her work interrogates notions of where home is, identity, and carrying one’s own ancestral trauma in the body.

Molina also shows two more abstract photographic pieces from her series How Blue, where fabric becomes symbolic of El Salvador’s violent histories. Molina captures both serenity and violence in the two pieces.

Carla Alexandra Rodriguez, "Oh, it's beautiful outside" (2014) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)
Carla Alexandra Rodriguez, “Oh, it’s beautiful outside” (2014) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)

Carla Alexandra Rodriguez, a Venezuelan-American artist, also draws on ancestry and lineage in her intimate and personal works. A video shot from behind of a woman picking individual strands of her long, black hair, suggests an almost absent-minded gesture of anxiety, one perhaps passed on from mother to daughter — it’s a gesture of disquietude, but the video as a whole also seems to luxuriate in the majesty of the thick locks. Another photograph captures a middle-aged woman smiling serenely amidst pain, captured in the light coming from a window. It’s an image that highlights the resilience of its subject.

Rikki Wright, "Body + Elements" (2018) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)
Rikki Wright, “Body + Elements” (2018) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)

Rikki Wright’s photographs, meanwhile, evoke a sense of memory in Wright’s use of muted tones in her series Sis. Her photographs have a hazy, dreamlike quality as if they were transient memories. In “Gaze,” two Black women — one with shaved hair and the other with dreadlocks, sit casually together, with an implied closeness between them. One looks distrustfully at the camera, while the other looks intently at her companion. The photograph’s viewer is positioned as the outsider, or even voyeur, unwelcome to share in their confidentiality.  The photo captures the bond between these two women, but also doesn’t welcome the viewer into that connection. Taken in with the other artists of the exhibition, Wright’s work evokes a feeling of toughness, as if the message were: “We got this.”

In another part of the gallery is a photograph titled “Body + Elements” by Wright that depicts a Black woman’s body face down in a pool of water. The woman’s body is pristine and lifeless. Wright provokes with this work, recalling the ever-present exploitation of Black bodies in popular culture and the media. The piece contrasts with the strength of her photographs of Black sisterhood, acting as a foil for the strength and positivity of those photographs.

Leah Edelman-Brier, "The feeling of one's mortality" (2012) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)
Leah Edelman-Brier, “The feeling of one’s mortality” (2012) (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)

Of the four artists on view, Leah Edelman-Brier’s pieces do the quickest work to startle, in large part, perhaps, because it is so unusual and unsettling in our culture to see the kind of body that Edelman-Brier portrays.

Leah Edelman Brier and her mother (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Leah Edelman Brier “Generation” (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The subject, Edelman-Brier’s mother, has a large body that’s covered with lesions and other imperfections. In one photograph, we see the woman sitting topless next to her daughter. The genetic similarities are clear, as well as the implied wear and tear of life and illness the elder family member has experienced. The photograph, as well as other similar ones in the series, points to the inevitability of each of our bodies’ submission to age, gravity, and the thousand cuts that life eventually serves us with.

Leah Edelman-Brier and her mother (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Leah Edelman-Brier, “Untitled” (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As a 40-year-old woman, the work for me inspires a sadness, not for the older family member but for the fear of becoming what the portrait suggests. Growing into my own middle-aged body, I know that battle scars are what indicate one’s victories, strengths, and wisdom.

<em>Yes, and the body has a memory</em>, installation view (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)
Yes, and the body has a memory, installation view (image courtesy Law Warschaw Gallery)

Viewing these portraits without the lens of what we are told is “beautiful” or “ugly” is extremely difficult, though it’s clear Edelman-Brier is critiquing those societal notions as well. With her work, she confronts that fear of age with honest vulnerability.

As a whole, the four artists in the show engage with the way we carry hurt, fear, illness, and history in how we move and interact with the earth and with each other. While the main medium is photography, the exhibition feels very performative. It’s a show that moves through you as you take it all in.

Yes, and the body has a memory, curated by Mara Duvra, continues at the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College (1600 Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, MN) through January 26.

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