Public Media Arts Hub

'Monuments of Solidarity' exhibition highlights an activist's approach to making art


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Artist, activist, community builder, teacher. LaToya Ruby Frazier's ideas of art making come together in her first retrospective exhibition.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for Art in Action, our ongoing look at the intersection of arts and democracy and part of our series Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: They are monuments of a kind we're not used to seeing, artworks intended to honor workers, document and address economic and social ills, and bring about small-D democratic action.

LaToya Ruby Frazier calls her exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art Monuments of Solidarity, tapping the power of photography.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Artist: We live in a world where we're pretty desensitized, right? And we just want to keep swiping through images, and we're not really pausing and slowing down and thinking about what the power of images actually are, right?

I believe in the power of photography, the power of photography to reshape how we see ourselves in our families, in our communities, in the world, how we relate to other people.

Jeffrey Brown: Frazier first gained notice in a 2015 MacArthur genius award for a series she titled The Notion of Family, portraying herself, her mother and grandmother within the larger context of America's industrial decline.

She grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a once thriving town where Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill, now in economic distress. Her museum retrospective begins there, enhanced with silent videos, and a wall installation, a kind of poem listing various toxins found in Braddock's air.

She shows the closing of a major medical center, and her response through art to a Levi Strauss ad campaign that used her town as a setting for so-called urban pioneers and featured a tagline that read, "Go forth." Frazier asked, "Go forth where?"

LaToya Ruby Frazier: I'm very interested in that as an artist and as a citizen, ways that we're able to show up for other people, especially people who may not be able to give us anything in return.

Jeffrey Brown: If one wants to explore those issues in our culture and society and politics, there are different ways to do it. Why is the camera your way in?

LaToya Ruby Frazier: Because that's how I got my start. So I view myself at this point as someone who is living a life of purpose that has chosen to live my life taking my creative gifts in service to people in the industrial heartland of America. It's where I'm born and raised from, and I have always felt and I actually witnessed how people were forgotten and became invisible, and people weren't telling those stories anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: Another series, Flint Is Family in three acts, centered on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that began in 2014, and its impact on specific individuals, notably, Shea Cobb and her daughter Zion.

It's told through photographs, texts written by residents, and a video in which Cobb tells her own story.

Shea Cobb, Mother: I said: "Do you drink that water?"

And she said: "No, I don't, but my friends do."

And I was like: "If you see them drinking it, and you're thirsty, you go get a bottle of water, because my daughter will follow people. I can't afford that." So she's aware. I hate that she's aware.

Jeffrey Brown: Frazier is the artist, but her work is always a collaboration, a collective approach that empowers people normally seen only as subjects.

LaToya Ruby Frazier: So really embedding myself into their lives, into the social fabric of that community, and then that's when we start to really make the portraits together.

So, in my case, the people that I'm collaborating with, they are the ones choosing to present themselves how they would like to be seen. They are choosing the time when they want to be photographed. They choose the location. And then they also choose to say what it is that they want to say.

And so I work directly with them. So, in a lot of ways, I wear many hats in order to create this robust series of images and voices and storytelling.

Jeffrey Brown: She's also now bringing us into the work in an unusual way, here an installation of photographs and texts of Baltimore health workers mounted on hospital I.V. stands set six feet apart.

LaToya Ruby Frazier: It becomes very sculptural.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, and then these are like I.V....

LaToya Ruby Frazier: Yes, the intravenous pole stands. So here's what you start to realize is, like, wait a minute, I recognize this. This is universal medical equipment, right? And so,again...

Jeffrey Brown: Which you have transformed.

LaToya Ruby Frazier: I have modified it so that it holds the artwork.

Jeffrey Brown: Again, this is artwork as monument to workers she sees as undervalued and little known heroes who choose how they want to be photographed and are given their own voices through the text.

LaToya Ruby Frazier: So this exhibition Monuments of Solidarity literally democratizes the arts. And it also, room after room, as you see the way that we're collectively making the photographs together, it puts forth new ideas about different ways that we could dream about our economy, different ways that we can dream about labor.

Jeffrey Brown: The largest installation here, The Last Cruze, as in the Chevrolet Cruze, photographs and texts hung on a structure that replicates an actual assembly line at an auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, the story told of workers fighting a losing battle to prevent its closure in 2018.

LaToya Ruby Frazier: And, in this case, instead of seeing the white Cruze car, you see the men and the women who actually were the laborers who were building that car. And that's where that connection is made between the products and the workers themselves.

Jeffrey Brown: The most recent work is titled A Pilgrimage to Dolores Huerta, an homage to the famed labor leader, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.

Throughout the exhibition, Frazier says, she's showing how everyday citizens have power to make their lives better and how artists and museums can expand their purview to capture and show that.

LaToya Ruby Frazier: And I truly believe, as an artist, it's important to be a witness in your time. It's important to mirror what is actually happening in your society. But it is also equally important to inspire people and to let them know that they already have the power and can bring about that change.

And what better way than to do it than through photography and storytelling, considering that we all have apparatuses in our hands and in our pocket that can do it?

Jeffrey Brown: LaToya Ruby Frazier's Monuments of Solidarity is on view through September 7.

For the PBS "NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.