An Immersive Installation Reimagines the Black Family Photo Album

The artist Devin N. Morris grew up in 1990s Baltimore.

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Jul 31 2017, 4:50pm

While flipping through old family photo albums, the artist Devin N. Morris realized that there were holes in his family's shared story. The instantly historicized images, bound in books his grandmother, mother, and he himself had assembled, lacked what the artist calls, "diversity in what events were memorialized." Instead, they showed mostly idealized versions of kin and good times—birthdays, holiday gatherings, cookouts, graduations. Remarking about the black family photo album in the film Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and Emergence of a People, the artist Glenn Ligon states, "The family photo album is a place where the family represents itself to itself, but it doesn't represent certain things," which is to say, it performs a subtle kind of erasure. In a solo exhibition at the AC Institute entitled, I Found you Like This, Morris seeks to recover his personal history by bridging the gaps with an immersive installation that uses image and memory to create fuller representations of evolving notions of family.

"I wanted to create new centers of dignity [as a way to] cultivate stories that could provide new ways for one to feel dignified in their life," explains Morris to Creators. "Whether it be by exposing sexuality and disease or ruminating on addiction and recovery or sensuality."

Installation view: Pink, 2017, dimensions variable.

"I am exploring a space natural to my upbringing. Within that I was looking to complicate a center of black identity which is dignity to me," he explains. Morris places mirrors throughout the site specific installation so that, he says, viewers can be "immediately crystallized within the space." The mirrors are often surrounded by draping of colorful and moody fabrics that allude to both celebratory birthday banners and funeral home decor. The effect is that, as viewers walk through the space, which takes on the real dimensions of a home, they'll see themselves physically and will recall, through the artworks Morris created, their own memories of the happiness and melancholy of home, memory and personal identity. In this way, viewers become a part of the landscape Morris created at the AC Institute.

Cedar Lined Cellar, a wall of images and fabric on a wood-like canvas, places an emphasis on black celebrations that take place after dark. The materiality of the work, for the artist, recalls his own upbringing. "In my childhood home the basement was lined with cedar and there were red and green light sconces in the space." Recreating that aspect of his childhood basement, Morris says, "I was looking to play with the place the adults went after dark when the the kids are left upstairs and told to mind themselves." There's an obscured blue figure on the wall, shrouded mostly behind a curtain-like fabric, alluding to a young Morris's inability to know what was happening in the basement after dark. No images from the basement parties were taken for the family photo album. Mother Letter, a purple environment featuring a video the artist made in collaboration with his mother, Angela Morris, further works to allude to lost family histories and the way respectability politics and notions of what constitutes a loving family, often make it impossible to deal with life's traumas. In the video, Angela Morris recounts her battle with drug addiction in her bedroom, a site where she possibly used.

Installation view: Mother Letter, 2017, made in collaboration with Angela Morris. Single Channel Video under Lace Canopy.

I Found you Like This continues the emerging artist's interest in collage. Many of the situations encountered are hand-stitched by Morris and feel like Morris has turned past works, like City Planning, into a human-size collage. "Collage provides a unique opportunity to use symbolism as a way to stitch together my history as a black American within a surreal imagined space where there aren't any limitations to my sexuality, race or any other socially defined constraint," explains Morris. "Working through larger installations disrupts the use of the image as I look at images as a tie to reality."

"I wanted to create a welcoming environment that acted as a place where one could imagine themselves existing," says Morris. "I created a physical space for the my adult self to exist and realize myself. By doing so I was providing a space for truth."

Installation view: Cedar Lined Cellar, 2017. Mixed media on canvas 4 x 11.5 inches.

"Too often," he adds, "black bodies are imagined and rarely realized."

I Found you Like This ran from July 6–28, 2017 at AC Institute. Click here, for more information.

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