A profile of photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose work follows in the social documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks. A visit to the “Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And a close look at a work by Jean-Marcel St. Jacques in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum.

View Transcript

(uplifting music) - [Paula] Coming up on NYC-ARTS, a profile of photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier whose work is steeped in the social documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks.

- It is a duty, a privilege and an honor to be able to use these cameras to serve others and to bring a real human story forward in a complex situation.

- [Paula] And a look at the exhibition Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, now on view at the Met.

- Native American art as foundational to our cultural heritage.

Exhibitions like this are meant to move people outside of that idea that all Native peoples are the same, homogeneous.

They were not at any time and they're certainly not today.

- [Paula] And a visit to the American Folk Art Museum.

- Jean Marcel St. Jacques gathered the detritus of his home after hurricane Katrina and started fashioning what he called wooden quilts, paying homage to his great-grandfather, who was a Hoodoo man and a junk collector, and his great-grandmother, who was a quilt maker.

- [Announcer 1] Funding for NYC-Arts is made possible by Thea Petschek Iervolino Foundation, The Lewis 'Sonny' Turner Fund for Dance, Jody and John Arnhold, Rosalind P. Walter, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Charles and Valerie Diker, The Nancy Sidewater Foundation, Elroy and Terry Krumholz Foundation, The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, and Ellen and James S. Marcus.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Additional funding provided by Members of Thirteen.

NYC-Arts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank - [Announcer 2] First Republic Bank presents: First Things First.

At First Republic Bank first refers to out first priority: the clients who walk through our doors.

The first step, recognize that every client is an individual with unique needs.

First decree, be a bank whose currency is service in a form of personal banking.

This was First Republic's mission from our very first day.

It's still the first thing on our minds.

- [Announcer 1] And by Swann Auction Galleries.

- [Announcer 3] Swann Auction Galleries.

We have a different way of looking at auctions, offering vintage books and fine arts since 1941, working to combine knowledge with accessibility, whether you're a life-long collector or first-time buyer or looking to sell.

Information at SwannGalleries.com.

(dramatic orchestral music) - Good evening and welcome to NYC-ARTS. I'm Paula Zahn.

On tonight's program we'll meet photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier.

Frazier grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where she began photographing her family and hometown at the age of 16.

Her work is steeped in the social documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks.

Frazier's photographs tell the stories of people who are usually forgotten, giving them visibility through her images.

Her project with residents of Flint, Michigan, documenting the effects of the ongoing water crisis there, appeared in Elle Magazine in 2016.

Her work addressing environmental justice, healthcare inequity and racism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and other major publications.

She recently photographed Breonna Taylor's family and home for Vanity Fair's September issue.

It's guest editor was Ta-Nehisi Coates.

NYC-ARTS spoke with Frazier in 2018 at a retrospective of her work at Gavin Brown's enterprise in Harlem.

- My work gives a framework to what it's like being a working-class person and family from Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Andrew Carnegie created and established his first steel mill in Braddock: The Edgar Thompson plant.

It's been operating since 1875.

Braddock, it's located nine miles outside of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River.

When you talk about America and who built America and the fact that America is built by steel, even if we look at the infrastructure, in the space that we're in today, everything is anchored in steel.

I was raised between these two very strong women: my grandmother, Ruby, and my mother, Cynthia.

My grandmother grew up there in the '30s, and this would have been when Braddock was prosperous, very diverse.

It had a lot of wealth.

My mother grew up there in the '60s, she was someone who witnessed the segregation and the racism.

And I grew up there in the '80s which would be after they closed all the surrounding factories and the unions were broken up, and uh the war on drugs breaks out in the community.

So I was coming of age when that was happening and I was a witness to that.

Just looking at them, is what pushed me to kind of create a family album that most Americans wouldn't want, right?

I think all Americans know the kind of images that are in The Notion Of Family.

It's just socially and culturally we're taught never to talk about those.

Once I started coming home with my camera, my mother became immersed and engaged.

She was a collaborator from the very moment.

And I think that a lot of this comes out of my understanding of the Maysles brothers and their documentary films.

They believed if a person who's overlooked and ignored by society all of a sudden has this camera turned on them, that they'll engage.

Because otherwise they would be invisible and voiceless.

We are traditionally taught in the history of art and the history of photography, that the photographers never relinquish their power to the subjects.

And so I was also trying to bring the same type of vulnerability and transparency out and prove that this has always been a part of that legacy of photographing family and making photographs with social commentary about America - laying that bear to the viewer was essential for me, right?

I'm just as much a part of this situation and this crisis.

I consider myself an advocate and not so much an activist.

I think that's very different.

I'm an advocate and a storyteller.

You think about Gordon Parks in 'A Harlem Family', which was published in LIFE Magazine, or you think about his collaboration with Ralph Ellison on 'Invisible Man,' a collaboration between black artists, black photographers, black poets, and writers trying to tell another story and narrative from the inside to the American public, so they can see it clear for what it is.

It is the everyday person, the everyday man, woman, and child that are experiencing the brutality and the pitfalls of capitalism, of inequality, of living in these small towns that have been abandoned by the state.

They're the ones - these individuals and families are the ones - that can express it and articulate it the best.

- [Shea] When you think about water, you don't consider government.

In fact you don't consider people at all.

Even though we've built plants and machines to alkanize and purify.

When you think about it, you only in your most remote mind if at all think about God.

Something nature intended.

When you think about water you don't consider poison.

Cause poison isn't something you consider for yourself, you don't think about murder.

- The water crisis became public knowledge in April of 2014.

Because Obama came on May 4th in 2016 and they had that image of him sipping the water, which was supposedly Flint River water, the American consciousness and psyche, believed that the water crisis was over.

It was in 2016 that I received a phone call from Elle Magazine, a magazine about women, health, and beauty, to build out a section for the September issue to actually have inside of it, before you got to the fashion spreads, 10 pages uninterrupted of a photo-essay talking about the water crisis.

It was important for me to, kind of, just pivot slightly out of the generational connection between my grandmother, mother, and me, to this other generation of three women, which was Renee Cobb, her daughter, Shea Cobb, and Shea's daughter, Zion.

What it's like now for them to have to figure out their relationship to water and how to live with contaminated and poisoned water.

Shea, she's a school bus driver.

And she was also very active in organizing and public protest as well.

She's a singer, she is a poet.

She had so much charisma and hope and faith, and just such a positive outlook, regardless of this circumstance, that is completely created a man-made disaster because of inequality and racism.

Why not collaborate with her and get her voice and her words and her perspective?

She made it very clear to Hearst corporation and Elle magazine.

She said, you know, 'Don't come here expecting to see a victim.

That's not who we are.'

She understands how the media shapes stereotypes and discourse around black women, black families, and black communities.

And so I really relied on Shea being my eyes, I was simply being an empathic witness, being led by her through this town.

It is a duty, a privilege and an honor to be able to use these cameras to serve others and to bring a real human story forward in a complex situation.

(bright music) - Coming up next: a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where time tickets are now available for admission.

One of the exhibitions on view is Art of Native America, the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection.

In this landmark show, 116 objects representing more than 50 North American cultures are presented for the first time in the Met's American Wing.

Its presence here offers a new interpretation of American history and an expansion of who is included in its narrative.

The exhibition was curated by Gaylord Torrence of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, in collaboration with Native American scholars and cultural leaders.

- The most important thing, I think, about this exhibition, other than the celebration of Native American art and the artists that created these works, is the fact that it is being shown, these works are being shown in the American Wing, which is the first time in the history of this museum since the wing opened in 1924.

So it's momentous movement in terms of recognizing Native American art as foundational to our cultural heritage.

Exhibitions like this are meant to move people outside of that idea that all Native peoples are the same, homogeneous.

They were not at any time and they're certainly not today.

It's not chronological and we did decide to lay it out by geographic regions.

The problem with that is that these culture areas did not have firm boundaries.

We endeavored in the gallery design to keep things open and permeable and visible, so that almost anywhere you stand within these galleries, you're perhaps in a culturally related area, but you're looking into other areas as well, suggesting a greater universality.

Most of these objects were created within the backdrop of colonization, which makes the achievement even greater.

I find the Pawnee war club to be one of the most astonishing objects in the Diker collection.

First of all, just as a sculptural work, it's sublime in terms of its proportion, the elegance of the shape.

It is a functional weapon. It was carried to war.

But it was also an important piece of artistic expression.

For the owner, this club was invested with a great deal of spiritual power.

The designs on one side consist of some zigzag lines at the top, then a circle with a single sharp zigzag line emanating from that the full length of the club.

These are generally known to be symbols of power.

It's possible that the circle and the single line may represent thunder and one strike of lightning.

On the other side is, I think, the most amazing design I've ever seen on a Native American War Club.

It's covered with stars like the night sky, including the constellation Pleiades.

We believe the club comes from the Pawnee because stars were so important in Pawnee religion.

Yup'ik masks as a group of objects are some of the most amazing images that one can imagine.

This particular mask, and I would say most Yup'ik masks, represent the prey animals that the Yup'ik people depended upon for their survival.

These masks were worn in the annual ceremonies.

In the dances they were intended to thank the animals that had given themselves in the previous year and ensure that there would be a continuous flow of new life.

It's often said that these masks represent something called Yua, which is probably easiest translated as the ongoing soul.

When you see an image of a fish or a seal or a bird, it doesn't represent specific creatures, it represents all of those of that genus that have ever lived or will live in the future.

So the mask is timeless in that respect and it places the Yup'ik people in a timeless relation with all of the animals with whom they share their world.

Standing Bear was a participant in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

He was 16 years old at the time. That was in 1876.

In the 1880s, Standing Bear went to Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

He met an Austrian woman, they fell in love, he married her, brought her back to Pine Ridge Reservation, and Standing Bear began to develop his art.

He basically tried to bring together in this painting six different episodes that he remembered.

Now, they didn't all happen at the same time, but within the tradition of warrior art, Standing Bear represented them all as though they were occurring at the same time.

There are horses that are being run off, separated, leaving the soldiers on foot.

There is a depiction of a group of soldiers that ran down from the hill and were killed in a ravine.

Another group of soldiers tried to break away on horseback riding back to the south.

They were overtaken and killed.

And then there's the final battle on the hill, including a depiction of Custer himself.

They all are great kind of sweeping battle narratives like one would expect to see in the great painting, battle paintings and tapestries in Europe, which he undoubtedly saw.

Carrie Bethel was a master basket maker.

She was prominent in the 1920s and '30s in California.

This particular piece was her first attempt to create a basket of that scale.

It took her three years.

Maybe the best way to think about the achievement in that basket is to think about it first in relation to the materials, which required an enormous body of expert knowledge in terms of knowing which plants to gather, how to prepare them before the basket was ever begun.

A basket of that kind is created using a coil technique which begins in the center of the bottom and then started upward and outward to form the sides of the object and then at a certain point, the midpoint, began to curve inward to reach its final form.

There was no revision possible.

She simply wove it from the bottom up.

And when you see the perfection in that form, in the relationship of that two-dimensional design to the volumetric shape of the object and ultimately the kind of tension that that form holds, the achievement is visible and amazing.

The objective in presenting these objects in the way that we've done is to respect them as works of art, as sophisticated and beautiful creations.

(gentle music) (bright music) - For more information on cultural events in our area, please sign up for our free weekly email at NYC-ARTS.org/email.

Top Five Picks will keep you up to date all year round.

And be sure to connect with NYC-ARTS on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

(bright music) Next we'll visit the American Folk Art Museum.

Located across from Lincoln Center, it is also reopened to visitors.

Since 1961, this museum has been showcasing the creativity of artists whose talents have been refined through personal experience rather than formal artistic training.

Its collection includes more than 8,000 works of art from four centuries and nearly every continent.

- Jean Marcel St. Jacques identifies as a 12th generation afro creole from Louisiana.

Around 16 years ago when he returned to New Orleans with his family, he bought a house that had been a rooming house for single male musicians run by a woman named Mother Sister.

And he bought this rooming house, but shortly after he moved in, New Orleans experienced the enormous heartbreaking devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Jean Marcel St. Jacques' home was destroyed and rather than giving into despair, he gathered the detritus of his home and started fashioning what he called wooden quilts, paying homage to his great-grandfather, who was a Hoodoo man and a junk collector, and his great-grandmother, who was a quilt maker.

If you look closely at the pieces of wood, they are studded with nails and all the other kinds of architectural and construction elements that you would see in a home.

He uses house paint to paint these pieces of wood, but he was always mindful of the palette of his great grandmother and her strip quilts.

When I asked him about the process that he uses in coloring and making and constructing his wooden quilts, he said, 'Well, like any good Creole cook, the secret is in the roux, but I ain't telling you all what that is.'

Jean Marcel has embedded two self-portraits among the pieces of wood and it shows him in his guise as a spiritual leader practicing what he calls folk magic, as the descendant of a Hoodoo Man.

The title of this piece, 'Mother's Sister May Have Sat in That Chair When She Lived in This House Before Me,' it's referring to Mother's Sister, who ran the boarding home for single musicians and there are two sides that fashion a chair.

One is upright and one is down, so he has in fact instilled physical remains of her presence in his home into this piece that he has created to pay homage to his ancestors and to his own Louisiana history and to the suffering of those who survived Hurricane Katrina in his Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

(soulful music) - [Paula] Next week on NYC-ARTS: a look at the world of dance through the lens of three distinctive female choreographers who have been stepping up to take the lead.

- When I'm working in my company and we're generating movement, I align myself very much with what social dance is in terms of a structure and then the individual creativity.

So it's not just enough for me to have a phrase and teach it to them.

The phrase has to come alive based on the choices of the individual.

- [Paula] and we'll visit the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, Connecticut, the meeting place of the Cos Cob art colony which flourished here in the early 20th century.

- The Bush-Holley House today portrays two stories in its history.

The house began life as a home for prosperous merchants in the 18th century and then gained recognition later as a boarding house for American artists and writers.

(bright music) - I hope you've enjoyed our program this evening.

I'm Paula Zahn.

Thanks for watching. Have a good night.

To enjoy more of your favorite segments on NYC-ARTS, please visit our website at NYC-Arts.org.

(bright orchestral music) Leonard, what a privilege to be able to sit down and talk with you.

- I love being here with you too, Paula.

- Where are we?

- We are at the moment to take nothing for granted.

- Well, it's a pleasure to be with Marci Reaven, the curator of this exhibition full of hope.

We are in the midst of some of the greatest sculptures by the iconic names.

(bright music) - [Announcer1] Funding For NYC-ARTS is made possible by Thea Petschek Iervolino Foundation, The Lewis 'Sonny' Turner Fund for Dance, Jody and John Arnhold, Rosalind P. Walter, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Charles and Valerie Diker, The Nancy Sidewater Foundation Elroy and Terry Krumholz Foundation The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation and Ellen and James S. Marcus This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the city council.

Additional funding provided by Members of Thirteen.

NYC-ARTS is made possible in part by First Republic Bank.

- [Announcer 2] First Republic Bank presents: First Things First.

At First Republic Bank first refers to out first priority: the clients who walk through our doors.

The first step, recognize that every client is an individual with unique needs.

First decree, be a bank whose currency is service in a form of personal banking.

This was First Republic's mission from our very first day.

It's still the first thing on our minds.

- [Announcer 1] And by Swann Auction Galleries.

- [Announcer 3] Swann Auction Galleries.

We have a different way of looking at auctions, offering vintage books and fine arts since 1941, working to combine knowledge with accessibility, whether you're a life-long collector or first-time buyer or looking to sell.

Information at SwannGalleries.com.