Celebrating the publication of LaToya Ruby Frazier: Flint Is Family In Three Acts (2022)—the inaugural recipient of The Gordon Parks Foundation / Steidl Book Prize—this exhibition features selections from this five-year body of work. Frazier’s Flint Is Family In Three Acts chronicles the ongoing man-made water crisis in Flint, Michigan, from the perspective of those who live and fight for their right to access free, clean water. Featuring photographs, texts, poems, and interviews made in collaboration with Flint community members, this project serves as an intervention and alternative to mass-media accounts of this political, economic, and racial injustice.
In 2014, as a cost-cutting measure, the Flint City Council switched the town’s water supply from a Detroit treatment facility to the industrial waste–filled Flint River. Forced to consume and bathe in water contaminated with lead at twenty-seven times the government’s maximum threshold, Flint’s citizens—predominantly Black and overwhelmingly poor—fell ill almost immediately, and many battle chronic medical conditions as a result.
Frazier first traveled to Flint in 2016, as part of an Elle magazine commission to do a photo essay about the water crisis. During that trip she met Shea S. Cobb, a Flint poet, activist, and mother, who became her collaborator. Divided into three acts, Flint Is Family follows Cobb as she fights for her family’s and community’s health and well-being. Act I introduces Cobb, her family, and The Sister Tour, a collective of women artists. Cobb, who lives with her mother and her daughter, Zion, works as a school bus driver and hairstylist, while launching a career as a poet, singer, and songwriter. To protect her daughter’s health, Cobb makes the critical decision to leave her mother and friends behind and make the reverse migration to Mississippi, where her father resides on family-owned land. Act II follows Cobb and Zion to Newton, Mississippi, where they move in with Cobb’s father, Mr. Douglas R. Smiley. There they learn how to take care of his horses, as well as the land and fresh water springs they will one day inherit. Because of segregation and discrimination in the Newton County school system, Cobb and Zion eventually return to Flint. Act III documents the arrival in Flint in 2019 of a 26,000-pound atmospheric water generator that Frazier, Cobb, and her best friend, Amber N. Hasan—a hip-hop artist, herbalist, and community organizer—help set up and operate in their neighborhood.
Spurred by the lack of mass-media interest in the impact of this ongoing crisis, and inspired by the collaborative work of photographer Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison in 1940s Harlem, Frazier’s similarly collaborative approach ensures that the lives and voices of Flint’s residents are seen and heard, and that their collective creative endeavors provide a solution to this man-made water crisis. Flint Is Family In Three Acts is a twenty-first-century survey of the American landscape that reveals the persistent segregation and racism that haunts it. In equal measure, it is also a story of a community’s strength, pride, and resilience in the face of an ongoing crisis.
Included in the exhibition are photographs from Act II and Act III of Flint Is Family In Three Acts, texts by Frazier's collaborators, as well as a video Frazier made to accompany the September 2016 Elle article. It features a montage of still images from Act I narrated by Cobb—a direct response to the absence of Flint residents’ voices in the published article.
ABOUT LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER
LaToya Ruby Frazier was born in 1982 in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Her artistic practice spans a range of media, including photography, video, and performance, and centers on the nexus of social justice, cultural change, and commentary on the American experience. In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, family, and communal history. Her work is held in numerous national and international museum collections. Frazier is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (2015) and Guggenheim Fellowship (2014), among other honors and fellowships. Her first book, The Notion of Family (2014), received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award. Frazier currently lives and works in Chicago. Frazier is the inaugural recipient of The Gordon Parks Foundation / Steidl Book Prize (2020).
All works are courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.