Art Exhibit Explores Black Photographers' Perspectives Of Family

Oct 8, 2018

When you think of a family, what comes to mind? Whatever the image — a mother and father with two children, a single parent, or siblings and friends — it can differ across cultures. A new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum shows how the definition of family varies in the black community.

The exhibit called "Family Pictures" explores the ways black photographers and artists have portrayed familial relationships from the 20th century to the present. It was previously featured at the Columbus Museum of Art before coming to Milwaukee.

Lisa Sutcliffe, the exhibit’s curator, says the exhibition was inspired by photographer Roy DeCarava. He's known for his photos that captured black life in Harlem in the 1940s and '50s and is featured in the exhibit.

“His photographs are dark and rich and took a look at Harlem in the 1950s providing a portrait or a depiction of black family life that was counter to what you might see in the media at the time,” Sutcliffe says.

Photo collage by John Edmonds
Credit Teran Powell

She adds that the artists in the show "are interested in the nuance and complication of portraying the African American family. When you come through the exhibition, you’ll see 10 different representations of a family — from LGBTQ groups of friends, to close knit neighborhoods, to nuclear families."

Gordon Parks is another famous photographer featured in the exhibition. During his time at LIFE Magazine, some of his photographic essays depicted the plight of black people in Harlem in the late 1960s — like that of the Fontenelle family. Parks writes that the family had so little to eat, that Little Richard's mother couldn't stop him from eating plaster chips that fell off the wall.

Lisa Sutcliffe explains Gordon Parks' photos of the Fontenelle Family: The left image shows the dirty feet of a Fontenelle child, while the right image shows the youngest child, Little Richard.
Credit Teran Powell

A panoramic collage of images by Deana Lawson spans more than one wall. While Lawson didn’t take the pictures, but they're of members of her family. The photos show various moments of her cousin's visit to see her husband in prison. Each time, the family would take photos in front of a cinderblock background painted to look like a seascape.

Deana Lawson's cousin would take pictures every time she visited her husband in prison. This series of photos, called Mohawk Correctional Facility: Jazmin & Family (2013), takes up more than one wall in the gallery.
Credit Courtesy of Deanna Lawson/Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Other photos in the gallery included siblings, friends, parents and grandparents with their children. 

The exhibition also includes several audio visuals. In one room, a short film titled “Black Mary” where a woman performs a mournful rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell On You.” As she sings, you’ll see her performing, and several images of black women fading between scenes.

What this exhibit shows is that although people’s definition of a family may vary, there is no one image of what that looks like.

"Family Pictures" is currently open at the Milwaukee Art Museum and runs through January 2019.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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