At MoMA, LaToya Ruby Frazier Asks What Our Monuments Should Be

On an August night in 2017, a mob of neo-Nazi thugs under the banner “Unite the Right” gathered in a park in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a bronze statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Although Donald J. Trump, then the president, found no fault with the race-baiting demonstrators, other people did. A counterprotest ensued; the results were explosive.

And suddenly, public monuments commemorating historical figures became prime symbols of the country’s split into violently opposing ideological camps.

That split feels wider than ever now. And although a campaign to reassess the values embedded in monuments followed, spurred in large part by Black Lives Matter, controversies around historical commemoration linger and thinking about new models continues. What forms should they take? What subjects are worthy of honoring? Is frozen-in-time material permanence necessary, or even desirable?

Such questions are posed and resolutely tested in “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Monuments of Solidarity” at the Museum of Modern Art, a two-decade midcareer survey of an American photographer and social activist who takes race, class and gender, viewed through the intimate lens of family and community, as her focus, and addresses them in photographic series presented as variably effective sculptural installations.

Installation view of “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Monuments of Solidarity” at MoMA features video and photography and the protective cocoon of Frazier’s relationship with her grandmother, Ruby, and her mother, Cynthia.Credit…Laila Stevens for The New York Times

Frazier came to photography young. Born in 1982 in the industrial town of Braddock, Pa., a short distance from Pittsburgh and the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, she picked up a camera in her teens. By that point Braddock’s days of promise and prosperity were long past, with a predominantly African American remnant population left stranded. Jobs were scarce; pay, low. Schools were foundering. The only hospital was on its way to being shuttered, a catastrophe in a town plagued by the effects of unregulated, health-ruining industrial pollution.

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