Against Amnesia: LaToya Ruby Frazier
by Vitasta Singh
LaToya Ruby Frazier believes life is not to be "belittled or squandered"— both one's own life and the lives of others. The first work of Frazier's I encountered was "The Notion of Family," I felt this commitment then (the same is true for her body of work at large), as I did again with intense and moving clarity when I was lucky enough to attend her talk organized by the Tanner Humanities Center. I invoke the word luck because it is not every day that you meet an artist who means and owns all her utterances, imbued with both intention and care.
Frazier grew up in the steel mill town of Braddock, PA, witnessing firsthand how capitalist institutions systematically subject the bodies and lives of working-class people to insidious exploitation and eventual disposal (often an intergenerational cycle), all while dangerously polluting their environment. This structural violence of purposely marginalized bodies being, explicitly and implicitly, understood as invisible and "undesirable," and therefore, expendable, shaped her politics and art. For when the body is political, how can art be anything but? As she details in her talk, Frazier counters the tradition of exploitation by crafting a process rooted in collaboration, where there are no subjects but co-authors, and their labor, dignity, and generosity are recognized and respected. She does not just create work about blue-collar people and towns. She is devoted to creating work "with, among, and for them" to ensure that she does not participate and further propagate the practice of extracting—even artistically—from communities that have experienced magnanimous loss in the empire's hunger for profit. Furthermore, part of this reverence is her insistence on depicting in her photographs the beauty, resilience, and joy of working-class lives and narratives to resist and counter their flattened, one dimensional representations in the dominant culture.
"Be an ingenious human" was the tagline for Frazier's Tanner visit. "Ingenious" is a term befitting a person who has been on a mission since the inception of her career to invent methodologies that nourish the agency and humanity of her collaborators, a result of which are projects that challenge and subvert the "historical amnesia" that the narrow imagination of those in power peddles as objective truth. In a manner, Frazier wears many hats at once—a historian, activist, teacher, and artist—to create photographs that serve as both "monuments and memorials" to the vitality and power of Black lives, especially those of Black women generation after generation. A substantial part of Frazier's lecture covered her "Flint is Family in Three Acts" project. An endeavor that was supposed to last five months initially but turned into a five-year-long sustained story that serves as an alternate archive of images—as revision, as evidence—against both the silence of the mainstream mass media as well as their complicity in rapidly promoting images that distort the lived-experiences of the people in the community amidst the water crisis. In "The Notion of Family," Frazier co-authored an intergenerational documentation of her family in Braddock with her mother to represent the socioeconomic violence and racism that alter the fates of the people residing in small industrial towns all over the country (and the world). For "Flint is Family in Three Acts," she steps out of the frame, collaborating with two women from Flint—Shea S. Cobb and Amber N. Hasan—to create "an intergenerational lineage of images" centering Cobb and her young daughter, Zion, as Cobb fights for the family's and community's right to clean water and health.
I want to briefly return to Frazier's consistent commitment to ethics, which is not merely a buzzword for her. She believes in photographing people as they want to be seen, and to hold herself accountable and responsible, Frazier ensured that co-artist Cobb had the final word on the official edit. Each project consists of ways to preserve and amplify the agency of her collaborators because she "wants to protect the moment as much as I want to document it." This balance is rigorous care rooted in prioritizing the well-being of people and their voices (an inward artistic resolve + gaze) over catering to the fetishistic gaze of an audience for profit (an outward artistic resolve + gaze). The latter would be antithetical to the project's mission to communally architect a living, breathing archive of the crisis that would serve as visual justice when legislative justice failed and continues to fail Flint. These images are armor, an affirmation of the people who make the community—of their labor, fight, love for one another, and precious lives—against official narratives that attempt desperately to suppress information and make the public forget. They are "monuments" for they will help Zion (and other children like her) remember that "no weapon made against you can prosper. You have already made it." Frazier also views it as visual justice because she was eight once and did not have the power to do that for herself. When Frazier shared this with us in that filled auditorium, where we were hanging onto her every word as though in church, I was reminded of the final four lines of "won't you celebrate with me" by Lucille Clifton: come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.
Frazier's willingness to lead her artistic projects with the question, "What should I do? What would you like me to do?" creates space for collaborations composed of porous boundaries, where the images become a conduit for concrete social change. With "Flint is Family in Three Parts," Frazier, Cobb, and Hasan's friendship led them to co-found "The Sister Tour," a fund that provides resources to artists of the area affected by the crisis—a way for the community to look out for each other and to keep their artistic practices alive. When an innovator named Moses West offered to give an atmospheric water generator that would be able to provide clean water to the people of Flint for free, those in power in the state denied his request. Frazier then used the money she was earning from galleries showing her work, coupled with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation matching her amount, to transport this generator from Texas to Michigan, placing it on Flint's North Saginaw Street, where everyone was welcome to learn how to use the machine (so they felt that it was theirs) and was able to access safe water without any rules that insisted on carding or documentation. She also set up a college fund for Zion. All these individual and communal actions emphasize Frazier's conviction that we can create change wherever we are and that these micro-level changes can alter the shape of our respective communities for the better. It matters what we do, what we choose to put our weight behind, and whether we choose to look out for one another instead of letting a system that profits off the scarcity model pit us against one another. Our making art matters. I want to end by bringing up a line from Frazier's video for the MacArthur Fellowship after she was awarded it in 2015. While talking about her work and what the award means to her, she says, "I just felt a deep sense of responsibility and gratitude." I hope it comes as no surprise to us that here, too, "responsibility" precedes "gratitude"—Frazier, once again, reminding herself and us that gratitude is devotion is attention is action.
Published December 07, 2023