Though her work has been displayed in venues as far away as South Korea, documentary filmmaker and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s art has always remained focused on her hometown of Braddock, Penn.
Frazier spoke to an audience of roughly 30 at the School of Art Wednesday afternoon, delivering a narrative of her life followed by several short films that exposed viewers to the decline of Braddock, a Pittsburgh borough that was once the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill. Deviating from the format of standard art lectures, Frazier did not discuss her work at all during her talk, instead reading her life narrative from a script while a slideshow of images from her past was displayed on a screen.
“This is not about me talking about the images — the images have their own language,” she said.
Frazier said she initially felt compelled to dedicate herself to profiling her hometown after buying a book on the town’s history and realizing that it contained no information on the role of African-Americans in Braddock’s past.
The presentation focused on Frazier’s family history over three generations, which she connected to Braddock’s increasing poverty rate. She described how her grandmother lived in a more prosperous time and her mom grew up during the “white flight” to the suburbs, while she witnessed “the crack epidemic and the demise of my family.”
The earlier sections of Frazier’s speech showed her grandmother with her collection of elegantly dressed dolls. As the narrative progressed, Frazier highlighted the poverty that struck Braddock in the 1980s after its steel mills closed, noting that the town was where the “elderly, poor, sick, underemployed working class reside.” In a film that followed Frazier’s explanation, she displayed and periodically returned to a scene of her mother in bed, speaking with a severe stutter, as she had developed an unknown neurological disorder, was being tested for epilepsy and was fighting cancer
Frazier said her works have always carried a socio-political meaning as well.
“Inherently, all work is political,” she explained. “When a work is apolitical, that’s a political statement.”
She also criticized the arrival of large corporations in Braddock and their attempts to create an idealistic portrait of the city that ignores the overarching issues of poverty and racism affecting the city. As a photo of a Levi Strauss Jeans advertisement that displayed the words “Go Forth” appeared on the screen, Frazier read from her narrative, “Go forth? Go forth where? And who gets to go forth?” Her films built upon this theme by capturing Frazier’s mother explaining the lack of police care for the largely African American Braddock community. Frazier’s mother concluded, “Personally, I don’t like Braddock, and I could care less about the people.”
Audience member Hannah Price ART ’14 said the talk showed how Frazier’s work touches on incredibly important subjects. Frazier said she hopes her work will attract enough attention to Braddock’s problems that they will one day be solved.
“I can build up a very large archive that will one day be useful,” Frazier said.
Audience member Justin Schmitz ART ’13 said he appreciated the scripted narrative that accompanied the slideshow.
“What’s really great about a talk like this is that there is a level of preparation and a level of consistency that reinforces the artist’s vision and even the artist’s persona,” he said.
Frazier’s first solo exhibition — “LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital” — will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum starting March 2013.
Correction: Oct. 18
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that documentary filmmaker and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier displayed and periodically returned to a scene of her mother in bed, who was speaking with a severe stutter due to years of crack addiction. In fact, Frazier’s mother had developed an unknown neurological disorder, was being tested for epilepsy and was fighting cancer.