The United States is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. A 2021 study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education pointed out that nearly a third of Americans report being lonely. This is up from a fifth, according to a 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who recently declared loneliness the latest public health epidemic, has spoken about three dimensions of loneliness and where they manifest: in intimate partnership, in friendship, and in “collective” community, i.e., having a network of people with common interests. These dimensions, in turn, can be the source of a rich social life when fully nourished. The pandemic almost certainly played a role in harming all of these, and we continue to see the ripple effects on society.

Kinship, a new book from the National Portrait Gallery, authored by Dorothy Moss and Leslie Ureña (with Robyn Asleson, Taína Caragol, and Charlotte Ickes), asks a critical question: What is kinship in the United States today, and how is it evolving? The book explores this through a series of works by eight contemporary artists and accompanies a show of the same name at the museum, also curated by Moss, Ureña, Asleson, Caragol, and Ickes. In addition to the art, the book includes a series of essays and a discussion with the artists. Work on the project began in 2018, and its timing heightened its relevance.

Indeed, Kinship shows that a number of the artists had to navigate COVID-19’s influence on their process. Thomas Holton, whose photo series The Lams of Ludlow Street portrays a single family in New York’s Chinatown over the course of nearly a decade, found himself separated from them for more than two months under lockdown — the longest he’d been away from them since starting the project. Jess T. Dugan, whose Family Pictures series spans a decade-plus and focuses on three generations of their family, shifted to self-portraiture and still lifes during the pandemic. Their photos of family in 2020 capture the intimacy of life under lockdown through a sense of stillness on the bed.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, “Shea and Her Father, Mr. Smiley, in His Living Room, Newton, Mississippi” (2017–19), from Flint Is Family in Three Acts (© LaToya Ruby Frazier, Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery)

“The thing that was so weird was that [the pandemic] caused you to think more deeply about family, etcetera, on the one hand,” artist Sedrick Huckaby pointed out in an interview in the book. “And then, on the other hand, it disconnected you from people.” Huckaby’s “Connection” captures this tension: a papier-mâché sculpture of his daughter, Halle Lujah Huckaby, looking at her phone sits in front of an oil on canvas painting depicting her grandmother and great-grandmother in ghostly silhouette.

Throughout, the book communicates a sense of kinship as meaning more than blood, but the subjects in focus are largely blood relations. The word “kin” indeed comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to give birth to,” and the artists grapple with the tensions therein, where perhaps the expectations of genetic kinship heighten family tensions and dysfunction over the course of decades. Jessica Todd Harper’s two-decade series of photos of her family lit like Vermeer paintings captures the fleeting beauty of life and the growth and loss that happen over decades.

Anna Tsouhlarakis’s sculpture looks at family through the lens of Native community, which is closer, perhaps, to the idea Vivek Murthy shared of the “collective.” Sourcing wood from her home in Boulder, Colorado, Tsouhlarakis developed a performative work in which she created a portrait of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, a young Crow woman who went missing in 2019 — just one of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women who’ve faced horrific violence in the Americas.

Tsouhlarakis (who is of Creek, Navajo, and Greek heritage) offers a critique of kinship and exclusion that asks us to consider perhaps one of the loneliest experiences one can imagine: being deemed unworthy of remembrance by society — whether in portraiture at a national museum or in one’s final moments and memories. “I think my presence in the space [of the National Portrait Gallery] is very unique, and it’s temporary,” she points out in an interview in the book. “It’s ephemeral, and the interaction that people have with Natives in their daily life, especially in Washington, D.C., is rare if it ever happens throughout their entire lifetime.”

Jessica Todd Harper, “Self-Portrait with Marshall” (2008) (courtesy the artist, © Jessica Todd Harper)
Sedrick Huckaby, “Connection” (2020) (courtesy the artist and Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas, Texas, © Sedrick Huckaby)
Ruth Leonela Buentello, “Nopalera” (2020) (courtesy the artist, © Ruth Leonela Buentello)
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, “‘The Beautyful Ones’ Series #3” (2014) (© Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Collection of Caren Golden & Peter Herzberg, photo Mario Todeschini)
Jess T. Dugan, “Self-portrait with Elinor (screen)” (2018), from Family Pictures (courtesy the artist, © Jess T. Dugan)

Kinship by Dorothy Moss and Leslie Ureña with Robyn Asleson, Taína Caragol, and Charlotte Ickes is published by the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, and Hirmer Publishers and is available at the museum store and online.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.