It is incredibly difficult to develop socially, emotionally and cognitively in a culture that experiences daily doses of trauma and unrest. Over the past several decades, educational environments and public spaces have been increasingly rife with disruption and anxiety. From consistent worries about physical safety (see: The Kent State Shooting was 50 Years Ago) to the anxiety and mental duress caused by disruptions to physical learning and daily activities; our culture at large has had to manage extraordinary pain, and learn to make space for grief.
Art can teach us a lot about grieving. In addition to being a model for how we might understand each other’s feelings and exhibit empathy (see: Exhibiting Empathy), art portrays many stages and concepts of the grieving process. Art also depicts a plurality of ways civilizations and individuals respond to tragedy and loss. Since the dawn of humanity, artists and architects have been making marks and monuments to mourn and revere members of their society. Some of the most prominent and vibrant examples come from the ancient Etruscan civilization. While historians know far less about the culture of ancient Etruscans than their Greek and Roman contemporaries, they have been able to map out significant aspects of Estruscan life based on their art. The Tomb of the Triclinium (c. 480–470 B.C.E) features an elaborate fresco inside of a single chamber tomb within a major Iron Age necropolis. The fresco gives us succinct indications regarding their collective culture. Etruscans believed that the afterlife would be very similar to their life on Earth, therefore, Etruscan funerals and burial rites exhibited elements of joy and their tombs were constructed for pragmatic purposes. Funerals involved games, banquets, music and dancing. Burial chambers had furniture and other personal necessities that the deceased could use in the next life. The adorning wall frescoes presented narratives of their life and status. Many of the tomb paintings depict a door, which served as the transfer between the physical and spiritual world.
In Ghana, funerary customs honor the distinct identity of the individual whose life is being celebrated and mourned simultaneously. Art has a large role in communicating the personal narrative of the recently deceased. This is especially evident for the contemporary Ga people. Seth Kane Kwei was a prominent Ga carpenter who created fanciful coffins for members of Ga society. His workshop, led by his former students, has been an awe inspiring source of custom designed coffins since the 1950s. The common name in the Kwa language for these creations is Abebuu adekai, which means “boxes with proverbs.” The sculptural coffins signify characteristics that were meaningful to the deceased during their lives. Coffins are paraded throughout the community to the burial site, forming a performative funerary procession that adds a lighthearted component to a heavy emotional moment. Like the Etruscan civilization, dancing, singing and art making is a foundational part of Ga burial rites and customs.
In addition to having panache, art is a means of achieving emotional catharsis. Images by contemporary American photographer, Jon Henry, communicate the pain of losing a loved one and make space for grieving to take place. Henry makes portraits that are an underlying commentary on Western culture and the enduring suffering and grief that white supremacy has inflicted on Black bodies. This is especially true of his Stranger Fruit series. Taking inspiration from Western iconography, Henry creates modern day pietà scenes of Black mothers holding their grown sons in their arms. The title refers to the civil rights song, Strange Fruit, famously sung and recorded by Billie Holiday. In the song, references of racist brutality, specifically lynchings, speak to the the blatant disregard of Black bodies within the American culture at large. Henry’s photographs are in response to modern day lynchings, most notably in the form of police shootings and unchecked institutional racism. The photos symbolize a community’s grief while experiencing racist violence and oppression. Henry explains:
“I set out to photograph mothers with their sons in their environment, reenacting what it must feel like to endure this pain. The mothers in the photographs have not lost their sons, but understand the reality, that this could happen to their family. The mother is also photographed in isolation, reflecting on the absence. When the trials are over, the protesters have gone home and the news cameras gone, it is the mother left. Left to mourn, to survive.”
This kind of art is powerful. The trauma of a mother losing their son is so poignantly expressed in these reenactments. These photographs are symbols of the grief that is part of the vicious cycle of systemic racism. They are a fantastical representation of a very real experience. Black men enter into a world that is antagonistic towards them. While Black people made up only 13% of the U.S. population in 2005, they were victims in 15% of all violent crimes and almost half of all homicides. In studies around violent crime, young Black men were found to be disproportionately impacted and more vulnerable to acts of violence (see: Harrell, 2007). Black mothers have to worry each time their sons leave the sanctuary of their presence (see: Shoots, 2018).
Taiwanese contemporary photographer, Kairon Liu confronts and transcends grief and stigma around HIV/AIDS via his portrait series titled Humans as Hosts. Liu’s conceptual photographs seek to turn grief and trauma into collective understanding by humanizing a diverse global population of HIV-positive individuals through portraiture and storytelling. Humans As Hosts prompts viewers to develop empathetic responses to the experiences of people living with HIV. It also provides solace and empowerment for the individuals he photographs, including himself.
Liu’s impetus for Humans as Hosts has autobiographical roots, which signify the cathartic nature of his artwork. He expresses this sense of abreaction through the depiction of his alias, a man named “tree,” who overcomes heartbreak and betrayal to persevere, rebuild his self-esteem and inspire others to value themselves despite the odds stacked against them.
All of the subjects of Humans as Hosts assume the role as hosts on a social and emotional level. By participating in the project, they are inviting the viewer into their personal lives. This hosting process includes their agreement to have their photographs taken, their stories told and their intimate lives displayed to a public audience. They are each hosts to the virus, although it has affected them in different ways. Their stories, which are the culmination of interviews conducted by Liu, are both heartbreaking and inspiring. They remind us that humans have an inclination to survive and persevere even when things around them or inside of them seem bleak. This is not just the narrative of survivors, but the story of courageous fighters. The resulting images are intended to expose and dismantle the stigma around HIV/AIDS, and implore us to consider how we treat one another and display compassion.
Everyone has moments of mental and physical duress. However, we may not truly know who is suffering until we open ourselves up to understand other people’s feelings. Part of this process can include providing a safe space where we are able to check in with one another, listen carefully to the emotions and problems being expressed and consider how we can show up and give support within our means and ability.
Art helps us notice deeply and be empathetic responders (see: Educating Through Art). While learning to become artists, we are reminded to take our time, embrace the process, consider multiple approaches to aesthetic and conceptual issues and engage in a critical dialogue with our peers. A big part of being artfully attuned is honing all our senses. Attentively listening to what others are telling us, while withholding judgement or advice, is a fine art by its very nature. Being active listeners makes us more aware of what others are experiencing, and in turn, makes conversations more mindful and meaningful (see: Artful Learning Through Active Listening). When someone is grieving, active listening goes a long way by showing compassion and a commitment to understanding what they are experiencing.
It is not always easy to verbally communicate deeply profound feelings of bereavement. Sometimes visual art can take the place of words. Expressing emotions through artistic gestures is beneficial to confronting and coping with grief. Creating a work of art gives the artist personal agency to build a narrative around their grief. This can take the form of a composition that symbolizes a relationship with a loved one or a process-based aesthetic exercise that enables the artist to make tangible connections between their emotions and who or what they are grieving. Works of art that address grief serve as mementos for exploring difficult feelings and managing emotions. They are not only cathartic for the bereaved artist. Displaying these works makes them accessible to viewers who in turn become empathic participants, experiencing and developing understandings about the grief being portrayed.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Harrell, Erika. “Black Victims of Violent Crime.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2007. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/bvvc.pdf
Lederman, Doug. “The Shift to Remote Learning: The Human Element.” Inside Higher Ed, 25 March 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/25/how-shift-remote-learning-might-affect-students-instructors-and
Shoots, Danielle. “The Worry of the Black American Mother.” The Mama Sagas, 2 May 2018. https://www.themamasagas.com/the-worry-of-the-black-american-mother/