One day, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier’s body of work will be considered key to understanding how many Americans learned to look at their fellow citizens with a little more empathy and compassion in the first half of the 21st century.
Frazier’s photographs, gallery installations, books and essays resonate with an intensely personal vibe born and bred in Braddock, where she spent her formative years experiencing the effects of the steel industry’s collapse on her family and the community.
The images Frazier highlights in such award-winning works as “The Notion of Family” and “More Than Conquerors: A Monument for Community Health Workers of Baltimore, MD,” — now on view at the Carnegie International through April 2 — invite viewers to wrestle with questions of social and environmental justice, cultural change and healthcare equity in their own communities and across the nation.
Just as Gordon Parks used his camera as a weapon against racism and poverty, Frazier came to the realization during her undergraduate years at Edinboro University that she would also make photographs that spoke to both the general public and the art world about the state of the country.
While Frazier is comfortable calling her work social commentary, it is never didactic, aesthetically lazy or an appendage of a political agenda. It is always soulful, meticulously composed, achingly alive and suffused with abundant levels of her own empathetic and compassionate gaze.
Frazier has always been inspired by art that she says addresses “the current, urgent political and economic shifts and trends in the nation that impact working class families and communities.”
“Being born and raised in Braddock, Pa., I understand that [challenge] deeply on a personal level as well as a political level,” Frazier says. “Because I grew up in the ’80s, that was me being a little girl looking at the impact of the Reagan administration’s policies on communities like Braddock.
“But then, being a young Black woman at the nexus of all of this social justice and cultural change is something that we hadn’t seen in the 21st century,” she says. “So I’ve really embraced how I’ve been born and raised. That all informs and impacts the depths with which my work takes different approaches and modes whether through photographs, writing, interviews, performance, immersive photographic installations or [workers] monuments.”
Frazier believes viewers can sense “the whole breadth of the 20 years of practice” that went into each piece.
While exceptionally well-composed and beautiful, they are not intended to make viewers feel good. They are not intended to hang over couches or reinforce the smugness of the ruling classes. The work is a tangible witness to the systemic deindustrialization that has hollowed out the American dream.
“These are [about] steel mill towns, coal mining regions, automotive industries,” she says. “What you actually see me doing is taking these micro-level experiences and scaling them up into macro-level conversations about the stories we tell around America’s great industrial past — its technical evolution.”
She also notes that her work, especially the monuments “create a safe space and opportunity for working Americans to talk about their lives and their labor and why they care about the work they do without being threatened by their employer.”
Frazier is currently a professor of photography at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a past Guggenheim Award winner and a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Award winner. She won the 58th Carnegie International Prize for her photographic installation, “More Than Conquerors,” a collaboration with Maryland healthcare workers. It is an installation she is particularly proud of because it has been a catalyst for change in Baltimore where doctors, community healthcare workers and influential institutions like Johns Hopkins University are currently in dialogue about how to enhance healthcare equity in that region.
The Carnegie Prize puts Frazier in the heady company of such past awardees as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder and Willem de Kooning. It is also her first invitation to be a part of an exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Art despite the fact that her work is owned and displayed by major museums across the country.
Frazier currently has a solo exhibit at the Gladstone Gallery in New York and will have her first solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art from May 12 through Sept. 27, 2024.
Not a bad resume for someone who never dreamed of such a thing when she was growing up in Braddock.
Asked if she’d ever been invited to join the faculty of one of the major (or even minor universities) in Pittsburgh, Frazier laughs because she has never been approached. “I would be open to considering it,” she says.
If that doesn’t start a bidding war for LaToya Ruby Frazier’s tenured presence on a local campus somewhere in Pittsburgh, nothing will.
On Monday, March 27, LaToya Ruby Frazier conducted a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University’s McConomy Auditorium from 6 to 7:30 pm.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.