Like the history and culture it represents, The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s “Photography in Memphis” exhibit pushes against efforts to be neatly categorized.
In her final project as the museum’s chief curator, Marina Pacini worked with Studio Institute Summer Arts Intern Ciara Fisk to bring images ranging from 1849 to the present into contextual focus. Although the exhibit commemorates the city’s recent bicentennial, it proposes that it is as much a reckoning as a celebration.
“If you’re going to look at the history of the city through photographs, you’re going to expect to find images that are celebratory, but at the same time, our history is complicated,” Pacini said. “We wanted to look with clear eyes at all aspects of our history.”
The city’s African American history is a study of struggle, from birth to the grave. The three images of abandoned gravesites in the exhibit from University of Memphis associate professor of photography Coriana Close are an examination of what happens after the struggle ends, and the impermanence of remembrance. Their creation, for her “Sacred to the Memory” project, was inspired by her own experience attempting to track down the city’s African American history.
“I’d see this person was buried in a cemetery and I would go to try to find the cemetery and I couldn’t find it,” Close said. “And so then I started realizing after I noticed that two, three times, I was like, how many cemeteries are there that are abandoned?
“I really focused on mixed-race cemeteries and African American cemeteries because I think they got less attention in the record keeping.
“What really strikes me about that is the question of who’s remembered and how history can be swept under the rug.”
In Pacini’s view, photography presents an opportunity to have conversations through art that may not happen as easily with other media.
“People are less intimidated by photography,” Pacini said. “It’s something that they recognize and feel comfortable with, so it makes it a lot easier to share different ideas through photography than say painting or sculpture.”
Nearly half of the 103 images from 56 photographers were part of the museum’s permanent collection, but the majority represent new pieces, with deliberate attention paid to amplifying the work of artists from marginalized backgrounds.
In making selections for the exhibit, Pacini found the unexpected contrasts within Close’s landscapes to be especially compelling.
“They’re absolutely ravishing and pull you in and make you want to look at them because they’re so lush and beautiful, and then you start thinking about what these photographs are about. That’s the hook. It’s a one-two punch. They’re extremely powerful.”
One of Close’s included pieces, “Mayor Winchester’s Grave/City Garage,” evokes the largely forgotten story of Memphis’ first civic leader — who was essentially exiled from the city for his marriage to a woman of mixed racial background — as represented by his final resting place, which is now beneath a garage.
“That history is really interesting to me in terms of how it plays out in the landscape. But then, also, that these places people think, ‘this will be forever,’ and how quickly that forever becomes an empty lot,” said the Cleveland, Ohio, native and Memphian since 2011.
“One of the things I wanted people to think about is to look at the landscape a little bit differently,” Close said. “Recognize that you can’t necessarily see everything. I’m interested in that, like taking a picture of a thing that you can’t see.”
Artists Richard Lou, Kaitlyn Dunn, Lawrence Matthews and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism’s visual director Andrea Morales will hold a panel discussion about the exhibit at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Moderated by Heather Nickels, Joyce Blackmon Curatorial Fellow in African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora, the talk will include each artist’s participation in and perspective on “Photography in Memphis.”
Richard Lou’s work uses performance and video elements in a style colleague Close describes as “hot” and “emotional,” in contrast to her own cooler, more distant landscapes, but the two share a grounding in similar ideas of place and belonging.
“I was born and raised on the border between the U.S. and Mexico and as the great (feminist poet and writer) Gloria Anzaldua stated, we all carry our borders with us,” Lou said. “The South has a profound history of participating in a wide variety of strategies of dehumanizing and marginalizing the other. Artists in this exhibition clearly state with their work that anyone that lives in Memphis is a Memphian.”
The dark, panoramic landscapes of panelist and recent MFA recipient Kaitlyn Dunn, a Memphian, highlight the weight and uncertainty of the area’s past, but her perspective is optimistic.
“It is important to see documentation of what Memphis once was, what it has endured, what it has overcome, and what it has to offer. It is critical that photographs of Memphis’ deep rich history exist in order to remind and continue to inspire future generations to appreciate such a creative, unique and powerful place.”
For Close, being part of a consciously inclusive retrospective was unusual and significant.
“Gordon Parks would say, ‘The camera is a weapon.’ And sometimes I think, particularly when you’re a minority or in a kind of oppressed group, simply documenting your experience is a way to assert you exist, that your life does have value; you matter. And then to see those images of people that look like you depicted in the museum, I think is really empowering.”
The “Photography in Memphis” exhibit closes on Sunday, Jan. 19. For more information, visit The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and public policy. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change. Sign up for our newsletter.