When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Alayna Pernell made the journey from Chicago to Alabama to be with her family. During that time, she moved between her mother’s house and her grandmother’s, immersing herself in the albums and buckets of family photographs her grandmother kept throughout the years. Some dated back to the late 19th century.
Their faces stayed with her, and when she returned to Chicago, she delved into the collections of photographs held at institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. There, she found that many of Black women were not shown with their families. Most also remained unidentified.
Pernell wasn’t able, at this time, to track down the women’s families and return the photographs, but she knew she could honor their memories. Using reproductions of the originals, she laid her hands over their hands and held their faces. Although she is not related to the women in the pictures, her series Our Mothers’ Gardens is, in many ways, their homecoming. She also reached out to Peter Cohen, the New York-based collector, in hopes of working together to find the families and give back the portraits.
Pernell is one of eight photo-based artists featured in Source Material, an exhibition at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), curated by Jon Feinstein and Roula Seikaly of Humble Arts Foundation. “I’m moved by Alayna Pernell’s project Our Mothers’ Gardens overall, and the image No Longer Peter Cohen’s Property #16 particularly,” Seikaly tells us. “I’m moved by how her hands cradle both the image, a valuable object in a transactional art market, and the anonymous woman who was treated as value-less when her identity wasn’t committed to any formal records relating to the image (who made it, when it was produced).”
For the exhibition, based on an earlier online show by Humble Arts Foundation, Feinstein and Seikaly chose to focus on the idea of “care,” as interpreted by each artist. The only guideline was that they work with found, vernacular, or archival images. From sculpture to collage, they introduced a range of approaches.
Jody W. Poorwill altered and reinterpreted their school portrait from kindergarten, revisiting a time when they struggled to fit in while visualizing the idea of self-care. “I learned to listen to what my inner child needed, to cultivate a safe space to grow, a place to be visible,” they say.
Meanwhile, Birthe Piontek returns to old photographs of her mother and grandmother, who have since lost memories due to dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, tearing them up to build something new. “Birthe Piontek’s images hit me personally,” Feinstein says.
“The images in this show are from Her Story, Piontek’s series of photos of her mom and grandmother, cut up, configured into sculptures, and then rephotographed as still lifes. My own grandmother, and my mother-in-law, suffer(ed) from the disease, so this work hits very close to home [with] its visual metaphors for a vanishing mind.”
Pacifico Silano creates large-scale photo installations, collaging images found in vintage gay pornography magazines, all published after Stonewall in 1969. The trauma of the AIDS epidemic–and the millions of lives taken during the 1980s–serves as another layer of meaning throughout his collages.
Ina Lounguine’s blue-tinged photos, created from a discarded and found wedding album, have been scarred with writing in Braille. The surface of each photo includes bits and pieces of Blues songs, meant to represent the loss of a relationship that didn’t have a happy ending after all.
Diego Romo, left without a family archive, uses found photos, interrupted by gaps and glitches, to represent memories and moments that were never captured on camera. “The motivation behind Diego Romo’s project Lo Que Construimos resonates for me,” Seikaly admits. “Romo uses found images as substitutes for his own family’s absent photographic archive. It intrigues me that he builds collective memory, shared intimacy, and narrative that’s purely fictitious–and how that undermines photographic neutrality and authenticity.”
Aaron Turner combines images from his family archive with those featuring historical Black figures. In this way, his series Black Alchemy reconfigures time, merging the past with the present while exploring Black identity outside of historical narratives and forces that portray Black life as monolithic.
Julie Lee brings us back to hands and touch, a theme woven throughout the exhibition. She describes her series A mother’s survey to live comfortably as a coming-of-age story; in it, a woman’s figures cover framed portraits of those she loves. It’s a gesture that obscures their faces, while also serving protect or shield, an expression of mourning as well as care in the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting that killed six women of Asian descent.
“I think that a lot of the discussion around appropriation positions the practice as cold, ironic, problematic, or disrespectful to its source material,” Feinstein says. “By framing this exhibition around appropriation as a tool for care, and focusing on work that holds care as one of its central intents, it’s created new, warm, optimistic potential.” You can see the show at CPAC in Colorado through September 25th. You can also join the artists and curators for a Zoom discussion on August 31st.