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In Pity | For Change – Review of “Stranger Fruit” by Jon Henry

I would expect we are all familiar with the Pietà. The Virgin Mary holds the body of Christ, dead, having just been taken from the Cross. It’s a deeply personal and deeply emotional scene.

Perhaps the most famous rendition is Michelangelo’s sculpture, currently behind bullet-proof glass at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, but there are others.  In fact, there are lots of others. Some are beautiful, such as the paintings by Francesco Trevisani or William Adolphe Bouguereau. Van Gogh’s two versions are ethereal. And then some are shocking and painful, such as the painted wooden sculpture called the Röttgen Pietà.


“Stranger Fruit” by Jon Henry
Published by Monolith Editions, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen


The story, with or without the theology, is tragic. The pose is heart-wrenching. The pose is also immediately recognizable and iconic. Here is the loss of a child, loss of humanity, and suffering of the innocent. With every rendition, we feel a stab of remorse and then a deepening conviction that this is not who we intend to be.

“Pietà” is Italian for the English words “pity” or “compassion.” Wikipedia calls “pity” “a sympathetic sorrow evoked by the suffering of others,” and this particular meaning is important.

Stranger Fruit, a new book by Jon Henry, is a collection of 59 portraits taken at 26 different cities in the United States.  Every one of them is a contemporary pietà with a Black mother and child. Every one of them is a gut punch of emotion about the real world we live in now.

Untitled #1, Co-Op City, NY

The book opens with a mother and child, a shirtless adult male, in the iconic pose, lakeside, on a sunny summer day. The book’s index tells me this is Groveland Park, Illinois. This is followed by mother and child in front of a plantation house in Birmingham, Alabama. We get a mother holding a toddler son on what appears to be an apartment complex walkway, and then a mother contemplating an empty bed in a bedroom which also holds a guitar a bicycle. The book contains a mother sitting alone in the dining room table, a mother and son sitting at night on a parking lot curb in California.

There are street corner images, parking lot images, field and countryside images.  One is in front of the White House. One is in front of a Target store. Some of the images include other siblings. At least one is in winter. The images are all in color.

Every one is an echo of the Virgin and Christ.

Untitled #5, Parkchester, NY

In nearly every image, the mother does not stare at the child. Instead, the mother stares straight down the lens to the photographer and thus to us. Their emotions are resigned, remorseful, sad, and it is through this emotion that the gaze becomes an indictment.

As with the pietà, these are images of despair and loss, and you wonder what happened. Then you wonder how this happened. Then you wonder why.

Untitled #10, Flushing, NY

In a concluding essay by art critic and curator Sabrina Greig, she writes:

Within the oeuvre of Jon Henry’s images, the series “Stranger Fruit” functions as a tribute – a prayer—to the Black lives lost from police brutality across the US… At a time when visually showcasing social justice violations against Black bodies, through photography, cell phone recordings and police body cameras has become a cyclical, ubiquitous occurrence in the public sphere, Stranger Fruit offers a fresh perspective. It depicts a corrective portrayal of Black culture that negates stereotypical expressions of African American life to instead introduce more complex narratives and imagery.

Stranger Fruit modernizes the pietà by recasting the iconic figures of the Madonna and Child as everyday African Americans in regal poses. Each portrait gives contemporary viewers new insight into understanding racial terror and white supremacy by humanizing the experiences, emotions, and overall plight of black motherhood and manhood…

Untitled #39, Santa Monica, CA

Henry carefully selected the backdrop and poses for the portraits in partnership with his sitters to compose images in a variety of locations, from rural areas to bustling city centers. His process illuminates a startling and terrifying reality: that the murder of African American men at the hands of police can happen anywhere.

At this level, it would be easy to say the book, or at least the concluding essay, is forced. There are no police in the images (although there is a police station). The settings are not selected because they have historic significance. There is no direct violence. Looking at the images, what speaks louder is a mother’s love and loss and pain.  What speaks loudest is, frankly, pity. The anger of the afterword is a long way, it would seem, from the sympathetic sorrow of the idea.

Untitled #42, Central Los Angeles, CA

But to say the book is forced would be to miss the point, to miss the sophistication, to miss the obvious-to-anyone-involved connections. The title is a reference to a song by Billie Holliday and then Nina Somone about the lynching of young black men. This book is aware of what its audience already knows and has known for a very long time.

Think again about Jesus and Mary.  Why was Mary grieving? Why was Jesus put on the Cross?

Oh.

Again, as Greig writes:

Many of Henry’s visual tactics continue in the performative and photographic legacy of a preceding generation of black visual artists… who use the conventions of traditional European portraiture to draw attention to the absence of humanistic portrayals of African Americans in historical and cultural narratives. “Stranger Fruit” parallels the practice of restaging celebrated canonical scenes like the pietà and uses the format as a framework to investigate America’s tumultuous history of ongoing human rights abuses against the Black body through those directly impacted.

Because there are so many images, and so many places, the ubiquitousness of the situation becomes obvious, and a huge part of the book’s message. So much loss. The images in Stranger Fruit are eloquent and troubling and necessary.

Untitled #48, Inglewood, CA

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