UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 13 Winter 20 Library
LaToya Ruby Frazier by Bret Hartman, TED 2015
Studio Art

LaToya Ruby Frazier at UVA thanks to Studio Art

"The artist cannot take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides"James Baldwin: The Creative Process

These words have served as a career-shaping rallying cry for renowned social justice photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, who recently was a guest of the UVA’s Studio Art Department for “Art as Transformation: Using Photography for Social Change.” Frazier spent an hour talking with Commonwealth Professor William Wylie and Visiting Artist Coordinator Liza Pittard via a University-wide webinar, recounting stories about the people and places she has documented and answering student questions about her work. Baldwin’s piece, she said, is her manifesto, adding, “I live by it. It is my code.” 

The artist cannot take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides. 
James Baldwin: The Creative Process

Over the course of a career distinguished by a McArthur Genius Fellowship and a spot on Ebony Magazine’s  list of the “100 Most Powerful Women of All Time,” Frazier has followed her heart and her work to tell the stories of disenfranchised people and to confer upon them the sort of agency and power that can sometimes be connected to artists rather than subjects. She has shown a passion for going as far as she needs to, both artistically and geographically, to find the stories to tell, while always sticking to a couple of hard and fast rules. 

“I don’t go anywhere without being invited,” Frazier said. “I don’t point my camera at anyone without there already having been a conversation and a collaboration. “ The second of these rules is that she always follows her work. “I don’t randomly pick projects. In fact, I don’t see any of my work as projects. I see them as my lifelong commitment and devotion to documentary work.” 

It was this demand to follow her work and this commitment to that work that led Frazier to what had once been a coal mining village in the Borinage region of Belgium. Officials from the Mac’s at the Grand-Hornu, a museum of contemporary art located on the site of the coal mine had been exploring the possibility of an exhibit around the lives of the residents there whose histories with the coal mining industry and with the region go back generations. They were moved by her award-winning book The Notion of Family, which had boldly explored the effects of racism and economic decline on small towns like her own, Braddock, Pennsylvania, as well as Flint, Michigan. 

An invitation followed, and Frazier found herself sitting across from three long-retired miners, who, she said, greeted her with skepticism. “One of the men, Antonio, said, ‘Why are you here? You are an American, You are black. Why do you care about us?’” 

Frazier answered their skepticism with a proposal. She listened as they told her that the museum did not represent them, that it did not tell their stories. “I said let’s do an exhibition for you, by you, and about you, and I will hand it over to you so you can lead tours and talk about how your labor and your hands actually shaped the Borinage region.” That meeting was the beginning of a relationship and process that would deeply impact Frazier’s life and work, as well as those of her subjects. Over the course of many months, through careful listening and deeply honest relationship building, she earned the complete trust of the former miners, hearing stories that they had not ever shared even with their wives and families. And she built similar relationships with the families. 

LaToya Ruby Frazier
(Photo: Credit John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

The ravages of time, exacerbated by a deadly profession and a worldwide pandemic, would bring the loss of two of the men during Frazier’s time documenting them, making the images and memories captured that much more poignant. 

When it came time to open, Frazier stayed true to her original promise. “The exhibit did not open to the art world first,” she said. “The exhibit opened to the families, to the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren.” And leading the tours, dressed proudly in their decades-old work clothes, were the miners themselves. The exhibition would later tour, with family members again leading the way. “The fact is,” Frazier said, “I was able to change the hierarchy of the opening, which was really important to me.” 

She hopes that by continually shining a light on the working class, curators and benefactors across the United States will recognize the importance of this message. “You can see in all of my work that I am intentionally making an archive that shows how beautiful and diverse working class people and communities are, because this country needs it,” Frazier said. “The United States needs to back and, and the arts need to be democratized so that every day people can go into museums and see themselves.” 

To learn more about LaToya Ruby Frazier, visit www.latoyarubyfrazier.com

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