Onondaga is the name of the county that encompasses Syracuse, New York. The name Onondaga is taken from the Hodinonshonni (the People of the Longhouse), also known as the Onondaga Indians, the original inhabitants of the land. Millions of years ago the geography of Central New York was formed by glaciers that slowly carved out long narrow valleys and left behind low tapered hills of glacial deposits called drumlins. If you choose a high enough vantage point and let your eyes move along this terrain as you say the word Onondaga or Hodinonshonni, it becomes quite clear that the aural peaks and valleys of these words mirror the landscape and the name of the people they identify. The link between language and home is perhaps the strongest bond of personal and collective identify we have. When the link between language and home is broken, we loose a primal security that may be impossible to recover.
In his series of portraits and text titled The Exile Project, Yuri Marder presents the stories of people who live in one language but have their hearts in another. Each image in the series begins with a portrait of an individual who is currently living outside of their original culture. During each sitting Marder asks the person to 'find a place inside that can be still' - while he makes a deliberate and contemplative one second exposure. Portraiture is a collaborative process and Marder establishes a trusting relationship with each of his subjects. Most of the portraits are made in the homes of the person being photographed, who display or surround themselves with items of personal and cultural significance. After Marder has finished the portrait session, he asks each person to allow him even closer into the process of storytelling that he began with his camera by asking them to give him a short handwritten quote in their original language that conveys 'what happens to the mother tongue when it exists, isolated or unused in a state of cultural separation.' Marder then etches their statement into the emulsion of the film, making it a permanent part of their visual story.
Back in the darkroom Marder continues to work on the negatives, applying bleach to build areas of density, while applying a retouching liquid to other areas to create luminescent highlights. These techniques are employed primarily for aesthetic reasons to enliven the look of the images and establish a singular signature for each portrait. Marder acknowledges his debt to photographers as diverse as August Sander, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jim Goldberg and James Van der Zee, and by using these techniques he is able to break the rules of traditional portraiture and pay homage to the photographers who have influenced his work.
Where Marder creates a path of his own is how clearly he connects the importance of language within our construction of personal identity, and how gracefully he gives that connection a visual form. In each portrait Marder has found an entree across barriers of language and culture to draw out and record elusive emotional and intellectual responses with the same certainty as if he were adding two and two to get four.
In The Exile Project Marder has brought each person to a place of primal importance. Their faces reflect the seriousness of their thoughts, and their words echo sentiments of loss, bits of philosophical wisdom, and private remembrances that they each hold on to as a staff of their emotional home. As we approach the 21st century and the specter of a 'global village ,' Marder's' photographs, and the stories that they tell, show us that it is difficult enough for us to hang on to who we are without having to do so in a voice we used to know.
Jeffrey Hoone (c)1994
In organizing the exhibition "Un/Common Threads: Selections from the Light Work Collection," curator Kaylen Williams went beyond a superficial perception of diversity that has become pervasive in the United States. As a 2007 study by the sociology department at University of Minnesota revealed, many Americans happily endorse diversity as a nebulous concept; however, many are still at a loss to discuss the specifics of diversity and its related sub-topics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation. (1) "Un/Common Threads" harnessed the power of photographs, using a visual language to voice these all-important specifics of diversity. Williams used the visual language that coalesced among the various images to stimulate dialogue about the complex challenges of a pluralist culture in ways that addressed both broad and personal implications.
Exhibiting together the work of artists such as Myra Greene, Dawoud Bey, Clarissa Sligh, Yuri Marder, Hank Willis Thomas, and Binh Danh, among others, certainly highlighted the individuality of their concerns and aesthetic choices. Yet this varied grouping also served a common goal by giving voice to specific, possibly contentious topics surrounding diversity. To emphasize this unity of purpose, Williams combined the “Un/” in the exhibition title with “Common Threads,” acknowledging the connections that can occur between diverse artists and the viewers of their work.
Many of the photographs in "Un/Common Threads" manage to evoke the idea of connections and also simultaneously turn it on its head by asking viewers to re-examine preconceptions that they may bring with them into the gallery. Ellen M. Blalock’s photograph, "Jermane," a portrait of a black teenage father pictured full-frame in an intimate embrace with his baby daughter, may provide a good example of this phenomenon. Those who find themselves jarred by the tender presence of emotion displayed by the young African American father must question and explore the sources of any biases regarding age, race, and gender. This is the inherent power of such photographs—when a viewer accepts involvement in questioning such preconceived connections, he or she is more inclined to get involved in talk of answers that can lead to a deeper understanding of identity and diversity.
Many of the artists whose work curator Kaylen Williams, a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, selected for "Un/Common Threads" engaged the topic of diversity from a personal perspective. Regarding her impetus for organizing the exhibition, Williams explains, “This project was of particular interest to me because of my own ethnic background of Japanese and Western European ancestors. Many students on campus are, like me, a mix of diverse cultural backgrounds. My Japanese mother was adopted by Americans and never had an opportunity or the encouragement to explore her racial identity.” In culling this selection of images from the Light Work Collection, Williams invited viewers of Un/Common Threads to explore the diversity of identity and to participate in the critical mass that follows an expansion of consciousness.
Laura A. Guth (c)2008
1. Joyce M. Bell and Douglas Hartmann, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk.’” American Sociological Association: American Sociological Review 72, no. 6 (December 2007): 895–914.
The exhibition was on view in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery from January 16 to April 19, 2007. It was curated by Kaylen Williams. The exhibition included work by the following artists: Don Gregorio Antón, Dawoud Bey, Ellen M. Blalock, Binh Dahn, Sylvia de Swaan, Lonnie Graham, Myra Greene, Saiman Li, Yuri Marder, Nzingah Muhammad, Osamu James Nakagawa, Suzanne Opton, Kanako Sasaki, Clarissa Sligh, Tone Stockenström, Lida Suchý, Hank Willis Thomas, Linn Underhill, and Carrie Mae Weems.
When she curated the exhibition, Kaylen Williams was a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University. She graduated in 2007.
Laura A. Guth is an artist and educator. She lives in Manlius, NY.