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Steel in Still

By SIGALIT ZETOUNI
In the year 1872, by the banks of the Manongahela River, Andrew Carnegie started an innovative steel mill in the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. His enterprise became the first U.S. plant with a Bessemer converter, introducing the first inexpensive industrial method for the mass production of steel. With the growing production of steel, European immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary had moved to Braddock and settled in the industrial heartland. Braddock, the half-mile square eastern suburb of Pittsburgh, became the home of an assiduous working-class community, and by the 1920s the town's population exceeded 20,000 residents. Novelist Thomas Bell (1903-1961) grew up in a Slovak family in Braddock, and from the age of fifteen began to work in the steel mills until moving to New York in 1922. Bell's novel entitled “Out of this Furnace” was published in 1941,  with a narrative that had begun in the early 1880s and had ended in 1937. Set in Braddock, the novel portrayed the history of immigration and labor in the Pittsburgh region through three generations of one family. The steel mill played a central role in the compelling story of migration, struggle, poverty and discrimination, encompassing great strikes, unionization, great wars, and the power of human bonding. Bell died of cancer at age 57 and his novel went out of print. In 1976, “Out of this Furnace” was rediscovered and published by the University of Pittsburg Press and its growing popularity has made it a required reading on many college campuses nationally.
  
Following the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s, the town of Braddock turned into a financially distressed municipality similar to many others across the United States. In the 1980s Braddock’s economy suffered from closing and downsizing steel plants, with the number of steel industry-related jobs decreasing from 28,000 to less than 4,500. The once thriving metropolitan area was abandoned and its population size was reduced to less than 2,500 residents.  Emptiness and hopelessness prevailed throughout, and with it came poverty, addiction, crack cocaine, and illnesses.
    
Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier was born and raised in Braddock, and generations of her family have lived the rise and fall of the community. Frazier’s work centers on her hometown, and she has been documenting its condition through visual renderings of her family. She employs photography, video, performance, and activism, portraying the economic decline of manufacturing via three generations of African American women. Frazier’s women are Grandma Ruby (b. 1925-2009), Mom (b. 1959) and the artist herself (b. 1982). Grandma Ruby died from diabetes and pancreatic cancer, Mom is fighting cancer and a neurological disorder, and Frazier herself has lupus. The artist looks at the illnesses experienced by her family and many other Braddock residents and responds to the intricate relationship between the personal and environmental, creating a conceptual picture of health care within social and economic inequities.
    
Last year Frazier’s works were exhibited at the Whitney BienniaI in NYC, and included a 2011 silver gelatin diptych entitled “Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test)”, where the artist compared the 2010 demolition of the Braddock U.P.M.C. hospital (one of the town’s main employer and health care provider) to one’s body’s own deterioration. On the left side of the work viewers saw the bare back of a woman, probably Frazier’s mother, sitting on a hospital bed, wearing a patient’s gown, attached with wires to a medical machine. On the right side, viewers saw an image of a demolished building, probably U.P.M.C hospital, and the wires extending from the patient’s head reached the wrecked structure, and extended into a web of cables and chaos.
    
In her artist’s statement Frazier wrote: “Grandma Ruby, Mom and myself grew up in significantly different social and economic climates in Braddock. Grandma Ruby witnessed Braddock’s prosperous days of department stores, theaters and restaurants. Mom witnessed the steel mills close and white flight to suburban developments. I witnessed the War on Drugs decimate my family and community. Between our three generations we not only witnessed, we experienced and internalized the end of industrialization and rise of deindustrialization.

This work is not solely social documentary. These are psychological portraits of the identity of the body and how surrounding outside space shapes and forms it physically. I view Grandma Ruby, Mom and myself as one entity. There is an intergenerational transference of our identities existing in the history of Braddock Pennsylvania.” (http://www.latoyarubyfrazier. com/statement/)
    
Currently in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography is showing works by Frazier in a group exhibition entitled “Backstory: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ron Jude and Guillaume Simoneau,” (July 19-October 6, 2013). Viewers can see Frazier’s photographs including “Self Portrait in Gramps’ Pajamas,” (2009,) “Grandma Ruby and Me (2005,) and “The Bottom” (2009). In addition, on view is Frazier’s video entitled “Self-Portrait (United States Steel)” (2010), with the bare-chested artist deeply breathing in and out in one frame next to an image of a steel mill pumping out toxins in another, creating an disturbing commentary on social inequality and pollution.

Published: September 03, 2013
Issue: Fall 2013 Issue