Revisiting the Pietá

Stanislav Traykov | Wikipedia |

Dzana Tsomondo of Photo District News reports:

The mother is seated, the body of her adult son, nude to the waist and wrapped in white linen, laid stiffly across her legs. He is too big for his mother’s lap, yet she holds him still. They are in a church; a subtle shaft of light pulls their brown skin from the muted tones of the wooden altar in the background.

The photograph is “Untitled #10 Flushing, NY” and it’s the first image photographer Jon Henry made for “Stranger Fruit,” a project he began as a response to the killing of African American men by police. The series uses the motif of the pietà—a depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus—as a means to examine a never-ending American tragedy. The pietà as a form captures both the public and private nature of a mother’s suffering; but in Henry’s hands, the pietà also represents what poet Claudia Rankine called the “precariousness” of black life. Though their sons are alive in Henry’s series, these mothers recognize their constant state of precarity and potential for loss—and the “mourning lived in real time” that Rankine says characterizes black motherhood.

Henry made “Untitled #10” at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Flushing, Queens. He was born and raised in Flushing, the youngest of three children, and grew up in the church. Given the location and staging, it’s the image in the series most closely modeled on traditional pietàs. “When I started the project, I wanted something that was as close to the original as I could, but [to] still make it mine,” Henry explains.

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