Visible Kin

There is power in the history of the daily, when exposed.

Worn, folded, kept secret, and loved, a collection of found photographs and handwritten narratives present the horror and delight in the ordinary in Christopher Mason’s exhibit, “Objects and Tales of Fascination, African American Migration 1919 – 1980” on view at the Cleveland Print Room through April 16, 2022.

It’s like going to church and finding unspoken atrocities on the altar (about damn time).

Old photographs—crinkled, torn, and creased—cluster around four handwritten accounts of moments experienced by Black Americans during the Great Migration (1915-1970), when over six million African Americans relocated from the south for opportunities in the north. The anguished and brutal stories—recounted by members of Mason’s own family—are exquisitely written in copperplate handwriting. Horrific subjects rendered in measured script confers dignity, beauty, and makes one weep. Pay attention, gallery visitors, this is our history.

That juxtaposition radiates among the photographs nestled near each written memory. Underneath the girl in the white dress on the rocking horse, the woman in furs and gloves, the suited young man looking onward and shining, and the soft, soft faces of children in an anonymous photographer’s studio, lies a bedrock of violence and shame. And a mass exodus toward better.

The bits of daily life caught in each found photograph affirm and redeem this weight. For more than six years, Mason collected images of African Americans from numerous antique stores around Cleveland. In this exhibit, he reassembles a family tree of strangers who are all kin. There’s such pain here, and such love.

As Mason says in his artist statement:

“There is something heartbreaking about not being valued as a human being. Not being able to see any value in your people or not being represented on walls. It was not until I filled an exhibition space with African American photographs of people have I ever enjoyed looking at all these beautiful black folks that have my eyes, my hips, my thighs, my lips, my beautiful natural hair, my cheekbones and most importantly, the varied tone of my skin that matches my experiences, my heart, and my soul.

“Dear God, thank you for these super intelligent men and women who endured lynchings of family and friends, loss of loved ones by death or distance. They put their heads down, did their work, survived the threats and insults, and lived to fight another day. They raised children, adopted faux parents, grandparents and took in kinfolk.”

To hear more stories of the indelible history of the daily, read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Object and Tales of Fascination, African American Migration 1919 – 1980

Through April 16, 2022

Cleveland Print Room

2550 Superior Ave.

Cleveland, Ohio 44114

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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