InLiquid Exhibit Puts Family Histories in Dialogue

In an open arts space, abstract sculptures made of painted papier-mache and chicken wire are displayed on one side, while embroidered dresses and silver kitchenware are displayed on the other.
“What Are We Claiming?” puts Cheryl Harper’s family heirlooms from the Holocaust and American slavery in conversation with rod jones ii’s imagined family past, which draws on mediums and concepts from his own life. | Courtesy of InLiquid

For every thing 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 relatives married to a man from the American South with a family history of racism and enslavement. jones is a queer Black man who can’t trace back his family history farther 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 exhibit “What Are We Claiming?” The exhibit shows until June 11.

Together, Harper and jones’ respective stories weave narratives of recorded pasts and imagined ones. Harper’s pieces of intricate dresses with American flags and yellow Stars of David sewn into the fabric hover over humble Shabbat candles and ornate silver pieces, a representation of the relationship between the different components of her family’s complex lineage. jones, conversely, works with large, abstract forms with colorful beadwork, his own dreamed-up symbols of his and his family’s past.

Harper was born within 10 years of the Holocaust and grew up in a Jewish environment where adults were still grappling with the trauma of the war.

“That was really very difficult for children growing up in that era because they weren’t telling us anything, but everybody was just really, really sad,” Harper said.

Looking for a way to address her family’s intergenerational trauma, Harper turned to themes of the Holocaust and Jewish identity, tackling the dynamic of predator and prey in her pieces since the 1990s.

“I was always an artist that 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 became even more tangled after her mother-in-law died. She went up to her in-laws’ attic and discovered a collection of Georgian silver — a result of family wealth acquired by enslaving Black people on their family’s plantations.

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

Combining the processing of her family’s strife during the Holocaust with her extended family’s complicity in the American disgrace of slavery, Harper thought up “What Are We Claiming?” as a way to place these conflicting histories in conversation with one another, but she understood that the narrative of the exhibit, which originally debuted in Lynchburg, Virginia, wasn’t complete.

She wanted to introduce a Black artist into the space whose work would complement hers and highlight a different American history. jones, a Gary, Indiana-born artist who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, was a good match, according to InLiquid Executive Director Rachel Zimmerman.

“He is a deep thinker … he was open to the challenge and was able to sort of stance his ground in a very thoughtful, positive way,” Zimmerman said.

In addition to the challenge of working with an artist with whom he had never collaborated, jones was tasked with creating family heirlooms without the tactile inspiration Harper had from her

“A lot of the images and pieces, the figures that I was making were coming from this world that I hadn’t defined,” jones said. “I didn’t know what it was, but it was reflective of a lot of conversations I was having with my friends and family, stories I’ve heard, things that I had experienced.”

jones created the foundation of many of his pieces with papier-mache 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 sculpting in his works.

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

Inspired by childhood scenes of playing with children with Technicolor beads in their braided hair, jones opted to adorn the visible wires in his pieces with hand-strewn beadwork. He drew on his interests as an adult, such as his zodiac signs, to inform the shapes of his pieces. He also considers his identity and the history he creates as he lives his life.

“I often think about the many ways society has failed me personally, as a Black man, a Black queer man, and moments in life where I didn’t feel like was full or like I didn’t show up enough,” jones said.

The unspoken dialogue between Harper’s and jones’ pieces is one of the many reckonings 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 discover more about their past. While having more answers can provide comfort to some families, it can also complicate truths families once believed about their pasts.

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

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