A Correspondence between Marcia Michael and Qiana Mestrich
Qiana Mestrich (QM): Although we will talk about the function of the newest photographs in your series, The Object of My Gaze, I cannot ignore the audio piece you initially sent me as inspiration. So, let’s begin here―the feeling I got from this was of a deep, haunting, universe of pain. I also heard conflicted voices and stories within this melody of pain.
Marcia Michael (MM): You are listening to “imagined” ancestral voices. Unearthing these sounds from the pain of my mother’s experiences made me realise that my mother’s body was the medium from which I could access history.
QM: I’ve had several real experiences of hearing the cries and wails of others’ pain, but the arrangement of your mother's sounds transforms this experience into something otherworldly.
MM: Listening to pain can allow one to hear a recovery of ancestral narratives. To see their world is to listen to their stories. They have been present all the time―we were simply not yet ready to hear them.
QM: Your mother's Jamaican accent gives the story behind this particular pain a sense of place, a glimpse of "herstory." When she exclaims, “Jesus Christ, have mercy,” this reference is what makes the pain so dreadful.
MM: The pain of the past is unbearably breath-taking. Her call is not only for herself. It is a matrilineal plea for mercy―for her daughter’s past, present and future.
QM: Many women of color carry centuries of unknown, unresolved ancestral pain, particularly down our maternal line. Its evidence marks our bodies. Many of us feel we must share the burden of inherited pain and suffering. Yet in this solidarity our happiness is often sacrificed and replaced with an unbearable guilt of remembering. How do we begin to learn our history when we carry this untold legacy of silenced memories?
MM: As artists, we must employ our imagination to the re-memory* of our ancestral histories. We must explore these memories within our practice as a methodology of black aesthetics. In this series, I use conversation, a “call and response.” What’s important is how we listen and what we do with that listening to learn what is being revealed.
QM: Your photographs reimagine a “re-memory” of ancestral history, Partus Sequitur Ventrem. Your new series takes its name from an historical slave law, which held that the child’s status derived from that of its mother and, translated from the Latin, means “that which is brought forth follows the womb.”
MM: Alice Walker, in her 1974 essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” writes that she “finds her own.” We search for our mothers in order to find ourselves. She searches for her mother in order to find herself. We are both searching for the same mother―we just don’t know it yet.
QM: Speaking of generations, let’s go back to your choice to photograph yourself with your mother.
MM: My photographs explore a mother and daughter relationship that has not been explored as it has been in Afro-American black matrilineage literature by authors like Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Gayl Jones, et cetera. What you are witnessing is a visual conversation of aural history between mothers and daughters. The female body, remember, is the maker and marker of history. The black mother is the instrument and embodiment of history. My mother is “The Object of My Gaze.”
QM: Many contemporary photographers pose the black body in relation or opposition to the historical and contemporary persecution of black people across the diaspora. Why is the black experience so often historicized and documented regarding the physical body?
MM: It’s about returning the power to the body. The body is the only tool we have. The body is that which remembers history and history cannot be undone. However, a different version can be told.
The conversations my mother and I have with our bodies is a dialogue that, in my listening to her memories, allows me to embody her memories as histories. The historicized body, exposed yet repressed, requires the reader to listen to the body that is proof and has evidence of the past. The face, obscured in many of my images, is not the orator. The body is. The body is testament to the refusal to forget. My body is displayed so that you see the remembering and are compelled to rewrite what you witness―an alternative history.
The maternal body is best placed in expressing the history of that which it creates.
The body, the mother's body is all our histories.
* Rody, C., 1995. Toni Morrison's Beloved: History, Rememory…
Qiana Mestrich is a mother, photographer and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.
Marcia Michael lives in London, UK, and completed her residency at Light Work in January 2016. www.marciamichael.co.uk