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LaToya Ruby Frazier: Born By a River

Dec 13 2013 – Jun 22 2014

Seattle Art Museum

Third Floor Galleries

In 1963 R&B singer-songwriter Sam Cooke recorded A Change Is Gonna Come. This heartfelt song became an anthem for the 1960s' American Civil Rights Movement. The title of this installation is borrowed from the opening lyrics of this powerful song.

Frazier is a photographer and media artist whose practice is informed by late 19th- and early 20th-century modes of representation. With an emphasis on postmodern conditions, class, and capitalism, she investigates issues of propaganda, politics, and the importance of subjectivity. Frazier's work is an intimate look at her family, connecting their experiences to the history of her home town, and its drastic decline from one of America’s first steel mill towns to the "distressed municipality" it is today.

In 1982, LaToya Ruby Frazier was born next to the Monongahela River in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Like Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, and other social documentary photographers, Frazier uses the camera to call attention to complex and challenging conditions. The exhibition includes photographs from two ever-growing bodies of work—those taken at the street level (The Notion of Family) and those taken from the sky above. Frazier was inspired by an essay written by noted scholar W.E.B. DuBois about his life growing up next to a river. She chartered a helicopter and photographed her community aerially, providing a dramatically different vantage point by which to view the community she called home. LaToya comments:

Braddock, Pennsylvania is located nine miles outside of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River. It is home to industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Works, which is his last functioning mill in the Mon Valley region today. Andrew Carnegie’s nineteenth-century steel mill, railroads and bridges dissect and erode the waters. One night the river flooded. Crossing through miles of man-made manufactures, contaminated soils and debris, it filled the basement and soaked the floors of my childhood home on Washington Avenue. Historically known as “The Bottom,” growing up there has made me realize that, if seventy percent of the world is covered with water and more than fifty percent of our bodies are comprised of water, then the properties found in waters that surround our artificial environments reflect not only a physical condition but, a spiritual condition in which we exist. Through a series of aerial photographs of the Mon-Valley-Braddock region, I came to know that DuBois’ words resonate with the current environmental crisis along the Monongahela River in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

The Seattle Art Museum’s Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship is awarded bi-annually to an early career black artist—an individual producing mature work for less than 10 years. The selected artist is honored with a one-person exhibition in SAM’s Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Gallery and receives an award to further his or her artistic practice. LaToya Ruby Frazier is the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence 2013–14 Prize Recipient.

Grandma Ruby Braiding JC's hair from the series: The Notion of Family, 2007, LaToya Ruby Frazier, American, b. 1982, gelatin silver print, 19 1/4 x 24 in. © LaToya Ruby Frazier.