“Family Gained” tells powerful story about family, race, and death.

“Family Gained” tells powerful story about family, race, and death.

Written by Catherine Titcomb

The Museum of Fine Arts’ (MFA) new exhibit “Lorraine O’Grady: Family Gained,” displays the emotion that arises out of the death of a loved one, while tying in thought-provoking ideas about race and the history of Egypt. Exhibiting a collection of photographs called “Miscegenated Family Album,” O’Grady compares her late older sister, Devonia, to the Ancient Egyptians Nefertiti, her husband the pharaoh Akhenaten, and their family. The comparison finds its basis both in the similar appearances of Nefertiti and Devonia and their children as well as in their major life events, such as marriage. The MFA also has displayed photographs of O’Grady’s 1980 dance performance, “Nefertiti/ Devonia Evangeline,” the precursor to “Miscegenated Family Album.”

Boston is one of the foundations of the exhibit — as it is where O’Grady and her sister grew up as daughters of Jamaican immigrants. They spent time in both Harlem and Boston, but never found a group of people that looked like them. In the 1950’s, two years after the death of Devonia, O’Grady found that group while visiting Egypt. The Egyptians both looked like her and were products of a similar cultural hybridity as the United States, a result of both conquest of the northern half of the country by the southern half in 3000 B.C.E., and because of its position as a bridge between the Middle East and Africa. The trip inspired the artist to research Egypt and draw the comparison between Nefertiti and Devonia.

The exhibit can be broken into different categories: the comparability of Nefertiti and her sister Mutbenret, the similarities between Nefertiti and Devonia, and comparison of Nefertiti and Devonia’s life events. The first two photographs that share a frame, “Sibling Rivalry,” are both pictures of statues, one of Nefertiti and the other of her younger sister. The descriptions in the exhibit state that O’Grady and her sister had a complicated relationship, shifting between rivalry and idolization. “Miscegenated Family Album (Sibling Rivalry)” compares Nefertiti and her sister to Devonia and O’Grady.

The next set of photographs compare both Devonia and her children to the Egyptian family. The resemblance to their Egyptian counterparts is evident, especially in the relationship with their children. A set of photographs titled  “Ceremonial Occasions I and II,” enhance the resemblance through narrative. A photograph of Devonia on her wedding day and a relief carving of Nefertiti on hers, link the storylines of both women. Furthermore,“A Mother’s Kiss” shows a photograph of Devonia and a relief carving of Nefertiti holding their children in the exact same pose.

The feeling that Devonia and O’Grady’s family is somehow Nefertiti’s family reincarnated grows as the visitor moves around the room. Though the comparisons between the women may not stand out at first, reading the descriptions and viewing every photograph, paints an eerily similar picture of their lives, a manifestation of how O’Grady views the Egyptian family as her “family gained.”

A smaller group of photos of O’Grady’s performance piece reveal just how much the artist struggled with her sister’s death and their relationship. The performance, titled “Nefertiti/ Devonia Evangeline,” was a recreation of the Ancient Egyptian ceremony “the opening of the mouth,” a symbolic ritual that was undertaken at the time of a person’s death to ensure that their soul was preserved in the afterlife.  The photos show O’Grady in front of a screen projecting images of Devonia and Nefertiti, performing the ceremony out of sync from the narration to show that while the ritual could not resurrect either woman, O’Grady herself could through her art.

Photo by Catherine Titcomb

While O’Grady does not explicitly state how Devonia’s death affected her, her works transition from an exploration of sibling rivalry to hero worship, thus giving viewers the idea that she may not have fully appreciated her sister while she was alive. Through the photographs, O’Grady also draws a comparison between a black American and an Ancient Egyptian, challenging strict definitions of race, as well as the identity of Egypt being neither the Middle East nor African, but both.

“Lorraine O’Grady: Family Gained” is a small exhibit with a large impact. While the  comparisons are at surface level stunning because of the beauty of both Devonia and Nefertiti, it tells the larger and more powerful story about familial relationships, race, and death. The exhibit is on display at the MFA until Dec 2.

 

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