As art-world figures and institutions have scrambled to correct the predominantly white canon in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and the Movement for Black Lives, they have privileged a very specific vision of Black life. Images of racist violence and Black trauma are seemingly everywhere these days. While such depictions are vital to spurring societal change — without the video of George Floyd’s murder, for instance, we might not be having this conversation — it can also be dehumanizing, triggering what Marissa Evans calls “The Relentlessness of Black Grief.” Nona Faustine’s Mitochondria, now on view at Higher Pictures Generation, provides a broader picture. Her ongoing series of 30 photographs, begun in 2008 and named for the mitochondrial DNA that mothers pass on to their children, shows us the love and beauty of everyday life in a household shared by three generations of Black women.
Mitochondria is organized into intimate clusters of photographs that evoke a family album, because, in a way, that’s what the show is: over the past 13 years, Faustine has photographed herself; her daughter, Queen Ming; and her late mother, Queen Elizabeth Simmons, as they share in moments “that straddle the quotidian and the profound,” as the press release states. The works are smaller than those in her previous exhibition at the gallery, which lends them a quieter, more intimate character.
The show opens with a close-up of the artist’s pregnant belly, the chronological start of the series. “Reborn” signals both the beginning of Queen Ming’s life and the birth of Faustine as an artist; when she took it, she did not yet consider herself a photographer. It was her mother who encouraged her to pick up the camera, making Mitochondria an ode to the creative power of Black motherhood, its ability to both create life and nurture its potential. The series — described by the artist as a gift to her daughter — witnesses the passage of this love on to the next generation, the accumulation of a different kind of generational wealth.
To speak of Faustine’s work as an idealized vision of life, however, would be incorrect. The exhibition toys with and deconstructs the classic childhood fairytale, particularly in reference to “The Two Queens,” Ming and Simmons. In “My Fears,” a young boy in a clown costume wields a spray-painted plastic machete, staring menacingly through a glass door at the young Queen Ming in her tiara. It is a dreamlike narrative set against the backdrop of everyday Brooklyn — a warning, in the guise of a fable, about the constant threats that young Black girls face.
But if the younger Queen is a damsel in distress, then Faustine is her knight in shining armor: in “Battle,” Queen Ming clings to her leg as Faustine throws a punch in the viewer’s direction, as if daring us to try and challenge her. Other photographs dispense with the fairytale imagery altogether: in “Some Days,” baby Queen wipes her tears as drool streams from her mouth, her yellow-flowered blouse stained with the remnants of some purple snack.
As with most anything so deeply personal, Faustine’s series is also political — or, perhaps, it is politicized, because the very right to exist (much less thrive) as a larger Black woman in America has always been under attack. We cannot look at this work without hearing echoes of the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued against civil rights legislation by blaming racial inequality on the matriarchal structure of Black families, and specifically on generations of Black single mothers.
Mitochondria offers a forceful rebuttal of this narrative, demonstrating that Faustine’s matriarchy is the furthest thing from a “pathology”; if anything, it is a source of power. In a nod toward her White Shoes series, which confronts the history of slavery in New York, “African American Princess” — one of the show’s strongest works — presents the artist wearing only an African mask and white heels. It is a celebration of her ancestral lineage, both cultural and genetic. Mitochondria is, in essence, a celebration of Black family. The exhibition is more powerful as a collective whole than as individual images, for Nona Faustine’s photographs function like words in a larger story: when isolated they can pack a (literal) punch, but together, they speak volumes.