The InLiquid exhibition puts family stories in dialogue

“What are we claiming? brings Cheryl Harper’s family legacies of the Holocaust and American slavery into conversation with Rod Jones II’s imagined family past, which draws on mediums and concepts from her own life. | Courtesy of InLiquid

For everything artists Cheryl Harper and Rod Jones II have in common, they seem to have a difference.

Harper is a white Jewish woman with Holocaust survivor parents who is married to a southern American man with a family history of racism and slavery. Jones is a queer black man who can trace his family history no further than his great-grandparents.

Both have a background in printmaking and a keen interest in exploring family histories, and both were brought together for InLiquid’s spring exhibition “What Are We Claiming?” The exhibition is visible until June 11.

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Together, the respective histories of Harper and Jones weave tales of recorded and imagined pasts. Harper’s intricate robe pieces with American flags and yellow Stars of David sewn into the fabric float above humble Shabbat candles and ornate silver pieces, a representation of the relationship between the various components of the bloodline family complex. jones, on the other hand, works with large abstract shapes with colored beads, his own dream symbols of his and his family’s past.

Harper was born less than 10 years after the Holocaust and grew up in a Jewish environment where adults still struggled with the trauma of war.

“It was really, really hard for the kids growing up in those days because they wouldn’t tell us anything, but everyone was really, really sad,” Harper said.

Seeking a way to address her family’s intergenerational trauma, Harper has turned to themes of the Holocaust and Jewish identity, addressing the dynamics of predator and prey in her plays since the 1990s.

“I’ve always been an artist who wanted to make a statement. I wanted to work with ideas, so that’s really what I did,” Harper said.

But Harper’s family history got even more complicated after the death of her stepmother. She climbed into her in-laws’ attic and discovered a collection of Georgian silver – the result of the family wealth acquired by enslaving black people on their family’s plantations.

A rod jones ii's sculpture shows a figurine made of chicken wire with colorful beads accenting it.

Combining his family’s handling of conflicts during the Holocaust with his extended family’s complicity in America’s shame of slavery, Harper came up with “What Are We Claiming?” as a way to bring these conflicting stories into conversation with each other, but she understood that the narrative of the exhibit, which debuted in Lynchburg, Virginia, was not complete.

She wanted to introduce a black artist into the space whose work would complement her own and highlight a different American story. Jones, a Gary, Indiana-born artist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, was a good match, according to Rachel Zimmerman, executive director of InLiquid.

“He’s a deep thinker…he was open to challenge and was able to kind of take a stand in a very thoughtful and positive way,” Zimmerman said.

Adding to the challenge of working with an artist he had never collaborated with, Jones was tasked with creating heirlooms without the tactile inspiration Harper had from her.

“A lot of the images and parts, the characters that I was doing came from this world that I hadn’t defined,” Jones said. “I didn’t know what it was, but it reflected many conversations I had with friends and family, stories I heard, things I had experienced.”

Jones created the base of many of his pieces with papier-mâché but molded the skeletons of his pieces with chicken wire. His mother had told him that his grandfather, whom he had never met, used wire sculpture in his works.

Cheryl Harper's piece is an embroidered white dress hovering above a display of silverware and Shabbat candles.

Inspired by childhood scenes of playing with children with Technicolor beads in their braided hair, Jones chose to adorn the visible threads in his pieces with hand-studded beads. He drew inspiration from his adult interests, such as his zodiac signs, to shape the shapes of his pieces. He also considers his identity and the story he creates throughout his life.

“I often think about the many ways society has let me down personally, as a black man, a queer black man, and times in life when I didn’t feel like I was full or for not showing myself enough,” Jones said. .

The unspoken dialogue between Harper’s and Jones’ plays is one of many calculations taking place today, Zimmerman said.

“A lot of us live in this world of not knowing,” she said.

With greater access to academic texts, social media, and ancestry sites and resources, people can learn more about their past. While having more answers may reassure some families, it may also complicate the truths families once believed about their past.

“It’s important to kind of humanize some of these aspects of real people who are really affected by these things,” Zimmerman said. “And there’s beauty in that, and there’s pain in that.”

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