Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago | Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation

15th November, 2022 in Author’s corner

Black mothers are often represented as less than deserving. Black mothers are dynamic, complicated, and multi-dimensional.

From Monday November 14 to Friday November 18, members of the Association of University Presses celebrate University Press Week. This year’s theme, Next UP, highlights dedicated work to seek out, engage, advance, and promote the latest scholarship, ideas, best practices, and technology. For the blog theme ‘What’s #NextUP in publishing?’ we like to highlight the recent publication Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation: Another Way of Knowing. This Diamond Open Access publication, richly illustrated and also available in paperback, emerges from the project Women Picturing Revolution. The editors and co-funders of the project, Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago, explain more about the project and the book in this blog post.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
With over forty contributors, Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation: Another Way of Knowing offers a cross-section of analysis on the topic of Black motherhood, mothering, and the participation of photography in the process. This volume probes to uncover the intersection of Black motherhood and photography while challenging the normalization of Black grief through pictures. By situating photographs and contemporary scholarship made by and/or about Black motherhood at a critical intersection that supports legacies initiated by Black women and their matrilineal line, this volume brings forth a wider and richer expression of motherhood.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
We are artists, mothers, and photo educators with a curatorial practice. When we co-founded Women Picturing Revolution (WPR) in 2016 we were interested in expanding the framework of representation by examining the work of female-identifying lens-based artists who document crises, conflicts, revolution, and joy in private realms and public spaces. We were most interested in themes of mother(ing), human rights, and mutual care in areas of conflict which became central to our conversations on photography. We were particularly interested in work that uses social media to bear witness to or connect people displaced by violence. What does it look like when women tell these stories on their own terms?

Maternal art studies, feminist mothering and the role of the mother as artist is the focus of Lesly’s photographic and teaching projects. Black and Latinx mothers as subjects and collaborators is a throughline in Zoraida’s photography and curatorial practice. The specific focus of this book was solidified in a 2018 seminar at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) entitled Women Picturing Revolution: Focus on Africa and the African Diaspora. This seminar examined photography and the conditions under which women in and/or from Africa or the African Diaspora make images.  It was important to us to include images that focused on the joy and dynamism documented by Black women photographers across the globe. Our guest artists Nona Faustine and Ayana V. Jackson (both featured in the volume) cited matrilineal legacies as influencing not only how they make work, but who they make it for. It was a moment that brought our interests together.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, 2002, edited by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams, is an extraordinary resource with powerful and problematic images of the past and work by twentieth-century photographers who challenged these false representations.

The blog Dodge & Burn has been addressing questions of race and inequality in photography since 2007. Recurring content includes photographer interviews, profiles, and features on trends and issues in contemporary photography. Dodge & Burn is maintained by its founder and editor, the photographer and writer Qiana Mestrich whose work is featured in our volume.

We admire “The Mae Preta Exhibition Catalogue (BRAZIL), 2018, which aims to connect the representation of Black motherhood in slavery visual archives, media archives, and the voices of black women and mothers in Brazil today.

Birthing Black Mothers by Jennifer Nash, Duke University Press, 2021 as well as classics including  Hortense Spillers  “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose are essential reads in the subject.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
Research for this volume began in 2018, we were working together but in our separate households, less than one mile apart, during the pandemic. As mothers with school-aged children, active community members, and creators we were busier than ever. It was particularly challenging to navigate managing home-schooling when public schools closed, work, and our book. These things which were at once so distinct, all of a sudden collapsed into one. That time marked by the racial reckoning which caused the world to bear witness to the murders of Black men, women, and children was vulnerable. For so many, it was hard, we grieve and continue to grieve for the friends and family we lost, and we fight against injustices that plague our community. But, in this time of heartache and loss, we did find joy in our conversations and dreams for this volume. Zoraida gave birth to her second child in 2021 and together, we gave birth to this book. The shifts of that time continue to inform our work and our lives.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
We would like our readers to remember that Black mothers are dynamic, complicated, and multi-dimensional. We hope this book encourages resources invested in Black mothers and more research and inquiry into this subject, and increased awareness of how Black mothers are often represented as less than deserving. From nineteenth-century daguerreotypes used as photographic “evidence” in support of colonialism, medical apartheid, and the sexualization of women and girls, to contemporary memes in digital culture, images are used to normalize the ongoing oppression and demonization of the Black mother.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about?
We are producing a sourcebook on this subject.  This will be a compendium of primary resources, artists and art historical perspectives, reproductions of key documents on the topic of Black motherhood, articles, and publications related to the representation of Black mother(ing). We feel this is a much-needed publication and would be an excellent resource for opening up discourses on the topic while supporting further research. An exhibition with a beautiful color catalog featuring the artists’ work would be a welcome expansion of the project. 


Also read the blog article ‘Images of Black motherhood: Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation’ at the website of Cornell University Press.

Lesly Deschler Canossi is a photography educator, cultural producer and co-founder of Women Picturing Revolution. She is faculty at the International Center of Photography, New York. Find her on Twitter at @DeschlerCanossi.

Zoraida Lopez-Diago stands at the intersection of visual, social, and environmental justice; she is a photographer, independent curator, activist, and co-founder of Women Picturing Revolution.

Follow Women Picturing Revolution on Instagram at @wpr_womenpicturingrevolution.


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