This photographer frames the future by assembling the past
In Frame of Reference, April M. Frazier presents archives of her family's deep-rooted Texan lineage that stretches from the late 1800s through to the present day. The project consists of photographs created on ancestral lands and scanned images of old family photographs. Collected from various family members and friends, the archives are compiled into diptychs or collages and often surrounded by materials that represent Frazier's family's land in rural Texas.
Frazier worked in the oil and gas industry for 15 years, but her fascination with photography called to her. Growing up, "my parents always took photographs," Frazier says. "They had pictures of us from birth to the present day and they had photographs of themselves as young children, so they shared those with us."
Her grandmother was an avid photographer of their family, as well, and she was the primary catalyst for Frazier's exploration of her family's history. "I have pictures from my grandmother's collection of my mother and her two brothers and sister at Juneteenth celebrations in the 1950s," says Frazier, who adds that the style of her project is even inspired by her grandmother's collection, which features family photos sewn together into collages.
Frazier began by sharing old photographs of her parents on Instagram, alongside scans of plants like okra and Muscadine grapes, which caught the attention of John Guess, the CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Culture. She was asked to continue the work she was doing in whatever capacity she wished and was offered a space to present the work in, and that was how the first exhibition for Frame of Reference came to be.
For Frazier, the process of collecting these archives has resulted in new and deepened connections, newfound meaning in family heirlooms, surprising discoveries, and aided in her path to growing her confidence in her abilities as an artist and a researcher. "People have come in [to the exhibit] and said, 'Oh, I think I'm related to you'," says Frazier, "and my dad met a new brother from this — they finally connected at the museum where the work was first displayed."
At family reunions — held on her family's land for the past 50 years — Frazier says she always listened closely to the stories her elders would share about the past. "There is a cemetery on the land that's 100 years old and there's a family friend that lives across the road," Frazier says. "I go over there and he's flipping through books that are full of portraits of Black people from the late 1800s. He goes, 'Oh, that's Mr. Johnson right there, and that's Emanuel Roberts right there.' I said, 'Wait a minute, Emanuel Roberts, that's my second great-grandfather.' No one in our family had a photograph of him."
As a Black woman, Frazier feels especially lucky to be able to make and display all of her findings. "It's extremely significant for me, and I put in quotations, to 'see' where I came from," says Frazier, "because I'm blessed to have come upon the portraits of family members. That plays a huge part in my confidence and in my walk today — not only as a Black person, but specifically as a Black woman."
"Now that I'm doing the research, I'm seeing that these family members were doing these things, too. This isn't just my story," says Frazier. "I think, if people had easy access to dig and find their family story, they would find these discoveries, the same as I did."
And Frazier is using everything she learned assembling her project to help others do the same for their families. "I'm working with students in Houston-area schools," she says. "It's called the Frame of Reference art residency, where I'm deploying into a school and, for X amount of weeks, I'm working with students to help them figure out — what is your frame of reference and what are your influences?"
"To be able to help influence the trajectory of a young person is why I think this is so important and what really builds my photography work," Frazier says. "By showing the many facets of collecting and building history, you uncover the importance of knowing that making your own history should not depend on someone else to write your story."
Frazier's Frame of Reference exhibit opened at the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives in La Grange, Texas, on May 21 and will be on display through August.
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