I’ll be your Mirror: Stephanie Comilang, Erika DeFreitas, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Neil Goldberg, Milutin Gubash, Vivek Shraya
by Noa Bronstein
Today, lineage, like everything else, has become commodifiable. The recent proliferation of self-service genetic testing kits, including 23andMe, MyHeritage and AncestryDNA have made clear that, for some, ancestry is purchasable and easily ascertained. The unspoken narrative of these testing companies is that identity is genetic inheritance and avoids the messiness of associations being born of emotional labour, relationship-building, kinship and togetherness.
Beneath the surface of Crystal Mowry’s thoughtfully curated exhibition I’ll be your Mirror at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery simmers the tensions at the core of recent interests in tracing one’s genetic lineage. The exhibition offers a counter-view to simple and reductive notions of family and social bonds. The photo and video works within the exhibition make visible practices or projects informed by artist–parent collaborations. In her curatorial statement, Mowry positions the exhibition as a commentary on intergenerational relationships that are formed, cared for and challenged by way of various lens-based strategies. She explains that “for many of us, our first introduction to photography is grounded in the discovery of our own subjectivity. As children, we perform in front of the lens, acting out a narrative shaped by our parents and the manner in which they prefer to remember us.” All of the nuances of how the familial and the photographic inform one another are poetically worked through by each of the artists within this carefully realized exhibition.
The exhibition opens with a series of black-and-white photographs from the widely circulated series The Notion of Family (2001–2014) by LaToya Ruby Frazier. These domestic images convey a sense of vulnerability, but also resiliency, set to a backdrop of economic decline and community uncertainty in the artist’s hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Frazier shares the frame with her mother in a turn that shifts the visual record to redress histories of erasure of black families and labour within grand narratives of working-class cities throughout the US.
Erika DeFreitas’ project encompasses video, sculpture and printmaking. Collaborating with her mother to consider anticipatory grief, the installation is framed by two video works— an earnest weight in the crease (2017) and real cadences and a quiet colour (2017)—that are set up at either end of the gallery. One video focuses on mother and daughter gently caressing each other’s hands, while in the second video, two sets of restless legs dangle from a couch with floral upholstery. Between the videos we find a series of white clay casts of the space between the bodies of DeFreitas and her mother as they pose for photographs, accompanied by prints of these same voids rendered in a way that is reminiscent of topographic maps. In this work, DeFreitas registers the many ways that relationships are formed through body and gesture.
Vivek Shraya’s Trisha (2016) offers a less direct approach to collaboration. This project pairs photographs of Shraya’s mother in her twenties, newly emigrated from India to Canada, with the artist meticulously mirroring the clothing, poses and gaze from the original images. Subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions between the image pairings seem to point to the different ways that each photographic subject performs and negotiates their femininity. It is not the first time I have seen this work, but that does not diminish its capacity to evoke a deep sense of how we are able to speak to one another and to ourselves through images.
Opting not to enter the frame with his parent collaborator, Neil Goldberg offers a simple and weighty action presented to the camera and to the viewer in his work. Goldberg’s video My Father Breathing Into a Mirror (2005) centres on his father as he inhales and then exhales onto a small hand-held mirror. The rhythmic action is suffused with metaphor—this basic method of checking for vital signs could be read as relaying the anxieties of losing a parent.
Somewhat unfortunately, at least for me, is that the exhibition’s many quietly suggestive punctuations are absent in Milutin Gubash’s Born Rich, Getting Poorer (2008–ongoing), a series of episodic videos starring his own family members. Mimicking the well-worn genre of the sitcom, with an annoying laugh track included almost entirely throughout, the video moves through various domestic scenes. While the work does present an interesting commentary on dominant representations of the family within pop culture, it might have been better served in a different context. The brashness of the video seems out of place next to the other, more subtle works within the exhibition.
Across from the main space, Stephanie Comilang’s seductively dizzying two-channel video Yesterday, in the Year 1886 and 2017 (2017) takes up its own gallery space. The video combines distinct modes of visualization ranging from the documentary to the speculative in a manner that is typical of Comilang’s work. The accompanying didactic text explains that the video connects the biographies of two notable Filipinos— nationalist intellectual José Rizal and archivist Lourdes Lareza Müller. A third character, a drone animated by a Tagalog voiceover (provided by Comilang’s mother), narrates shots of open spaces, domestic interiors and monuments. These various memoryscapes appear to reveal how meaning is produced in the reflexive translation of narratives exchanged among family members.
I’ll be your Mirror operates within a cultural moment increasingly concerned with ancestry but moves against it by positioning lineage as something to be felt and lived rather than commodified. There is a real sense of generosity in the works and in the curation. To be invited into these parent-child relationships is to encounter and be embraced by attentive intimacies.