Latoya Ruby Frazier - WITNESS @ ICA 1/16

This visit would be my second visit to Latoya Ruby Frazier’s WITNESS exhibition. The first time was pretty rushed because I came towards the end of visiting hours and only had about 10 minutes to browse until I was going to view “Pussy Riot: A Punk Rock Prayer.” Because the images were in documentary format and I was not in a critical mindset, I didn’t grasp the overall concept of the exhibition but I did appreciate the layout of the body of work. I believe the first time I gravitated towards the video pieces rather than the stills. The second time, I actually decided to try out the audio guide considering I created my review about the museum audio guide. I was even more captivated by the way Frazier spoke so eloquently about her family’s personal struggles, gentrification, and activism. Although her documentation was straightforward, I found her performances to be more abstract and very personal.

After hearing her interviews, her work changed dramatically for me and I began to empathize with Braddock, Pennsylvania, which reminded me a lot of my own hometown Holyoke, Massachusetts. Both towns were factory towns left behind after the economy changed and work moved elsewhere. However, Braddock is much more polluted and looks more isolated than my hometown. WITNESS acts a body of self-portraits, portraiture, and social commentary on industrialization and its effects on communities. I spent about ten to fifteen minutes in each room. The room that had predominantly images of her grandmother and grandfather’s homes hit me pretty hard. These images were stark and stunning all at the same time. Her grandmother collected dolls, which I affiliate with an Asian superstition that dolls are vessels for spirits. These images alluded to American portraiture like what one would find in the American wing in the MFA, except this is “outsider” American portraiture because Frazier is a minority and lacks financial power. I began to feel angry that only now in 2014 this issue was being brought to light in a large contemporary museum setting. Gentrification in the Untied States started as early as tenant farming post-Civil War, but America was too busy building an empire and still too young to understand art and all of the issues to come. I thought of all of this in just this room. I thought that Robert Indiana could learn a thing or two from Frazier.

I had a difficult time watching the documentation of Frazier and her mother getting checked out at a local doctor. The medical facility, or what I perceived as the patient room, was so different compared to Boston’s medical facilities. I thought about how screwed up the current healthcare system is and how once again, proper healthcare about who you know and big your wallet is. My heart broke watching the documentation of Frazier’s mother struggling to talk because of her battle with cancer and an unknown neurological disorder: all of these problems because of their hometown and the United States keeping the poor, poor. This situation foiled my own family and our variety of health problems. My mother is putting off knee surgery so she can try to keep working even though she’s been a custodian at a prestigious women’s college for over thirty years with little benefits. I completely relate to Frazier because she is choosing art to share her family’s history that unlike millions of other Americans are forgotten about and ignored. My sister is the opposite of Frazier: she had children very young, was a single parent for years, worked several jobs, went back to college and got her masters in business. My sister sacrificed everything for our family and picked a career for monetary value, yet she still struggles. She lives in Springfield, Massachusetts, also very similar to Braddock, Pennsylvania. I worried a lot, however that perhaps being exhibited, Frazier would be exoticized or even overlooked, like I did the first time. Her work is powerful and moving and Frazier sends a message that applies to everyone in some form or another: mortality and the effects of industrialization at home. The curator did a wonderful job asking thought-provoking questions and created a flow that helped the body of work to be understood in parts to grasp the overarching concept. Irony would be walking through that space sporting some Levi jeans.