Gaining Identity Through the Archive in Qiana Mestrich’s Hard to Place
Qiana Mestrich’s Hard to Place (2016) is an intimate family portrait that simultaneously explores the maternal, the home, and a sense of belonging, while addressing urgency in the loss of all those things. In 2013, Mestrich acquired the adoption records of Joseph, a mixed-race child of Irish and Nigerian dissent who spent some of his childhood during the 1960s and ’70s living with his impoverished Irish-born birth mother in London. This photobook is a combination of those adoption records, photographs, and images of objects saved by Joseph over the years, as well as contemporary images from Mestrich’s own life. Mestrich was a speaker at the 2016 Photo-Bookworks Symposium at Visual Studies Workshop.
Perhaps Mestrich’s drive for answers comes from her own unclear and undefined family history. Her previous projects, in which she explored her personal history, have opened her to connecting small, personal narratives to broader stories in American history. Obtaining the adoption papers for Joseph exposed her to a world she previously knew little about.
In reading the records—which were recorded by social workers and therefore should have been clinical and objective—the viewer gains a sense of London at that time, including its racial climate. A recurring narrative of racism and xenophobia exists throughout the documents. The records are harsh concerning Joseph and his mother, Maureen. An image of what appears to be a news clipping advertising Joseph’s adoption refers to him as having a handicap equivalent to “mental retardation and physical disability” because of his mixed race. In what appear to be the typed notes of a social worker, Maureen is referred to as having “an unstable Irish temperament.”
For the most part, the text is a direct representation of the information available in the government files obtained by Mestrich. The text is manipulated poetically, repeating, changing size, and falling down the page in a way that allows it to reveal the characters of Joseph and Maureen. Mestrich references the archive through the use of a typewriter-styled font and in copied, hand-written notations, but much of the archive’s ephemera has been eliminated. Borders of the archival photographs, wrinkles in the papers, and signs of the papers’ and photos’ aging are gone from much of the text, allowing the reader to focus on the wording, as opposed to the appearance of the documents.
The text is integral to the project, as it serves to build a bridge to current mixed-race orphans, connecting the archival narrative with contemporary stories. Removing archival ephemera helps to make the material timeless, as Joseph’s story is one that could have been told about London mixed-race orphans from any modern decade. The combination of contemporary and archival imagery with timeless text allows the book to travel back and forth through time.
The book is an amalgamation of three archives: the official archive, Joseph’s archive, and Mestrich’s personal archive. These collections work together, and sometimes in opposition to each other, to establish characters and a fluidity of time and space. The often harsh and judgmental text sits opposite an image of baby Joseph in a stroller, or Maureen reclining on a bed. In these two images, the archival ephemera remains, with tattered and taped edges serving as a visible reminder of both the past and of the fragility of the subjects of the images.
Through this tender fragility, Maureen is given the voice and identity she was seemingly denied in the adoption archive. According to Mestrich, Maureen died in her early forties, when Joseph was only sixteen. By weaving together the three archives, the book becomes a considerate tribute that allows the viewer to gain comprehension, participating in the discovery of a person who was emotionally removed and difficult to understand.
The adoption documents offer very little sense of permanence or home. A list of items Maureen brought to a homeless shelter, and a list that spans six years of home placements for Joseph, deny the reader a sense of home and stability. What is said in the documents exists in stark contrast to what is shown in the imagery. Photographs and objects are used to bridge the space between the archive and the domestic. Mestrich establishes a sense of place with her contemporary imagery, images of her own child, and photographs of Joseph’s collection of his mother’s belongings. These images serve to combat the sense that orphans come from nothing and from no one. Through the use of Joseph’s personal archive of his mother’s belongings, including her makeup case and some empty photo frames, we discover that the young man pictured on the cover of the book does indeed have an origin.
The archive becomes a place through which Joseph identifies himself, as he spent decades hanging on to these objects that were so closely linked to his childhood. Mestrich is careful to choose images that have been produced with care, tenderly documenting the ephemera that Joseph chose to archive as part of his own identity. Joseph’s archive works to counteract the harshness of the government archive that followed him throughout his childhood.
Mestrich has no difficulty bridging the gap between the historic/archival and the contemporary narrative, saying in a Skype interview with me on April 9, 2016, “Art can create some of the best dialogue, and dialogue is ultimately the best resolution tool for any kind of conflict.” As she noted, encouraging the audience to move beyond superficial conversation about the appearance of the work and to debate the content of a work, their thoughts, and their emotions about it is more difficult than connecting the past with the present. Many artists of color face similar challenges, especially when their work addresses issues of race or identity.
Hard to Place is not the first time Mestrich has used a continuum of skin tone to represent race in her work. A range of skin tones serves as negative space, both behind Mestrich’s contemporary images and as their own pages. Flesh tones are difficult to represent on paper, but each color is evocative of skin pictured within the book. The use of color is reminiscent of Humanæ (2015–present), a work in progress by artist Angélica Dass, who uses the Pantone color guides as a reference for the range of skin tones in her portrait work. As in Humanæ, the colors in Hard to Place are surprising in their complexity. Because of the digital printing process, the reductive and flat color is far from reflecting a person’s complexion. However, the range it represents, from soft pinks to deep browns, contains subtle depth, and hints at the intricacies of how race affected the history of Joseph and Maureen. The colors, as negative space, provide a visual break for the reader while still engaging and contributing to the narrative. Stark white negative space is used as well, and serves as a full stop in the few instances where it fills the page. The afterimage that exists in this negative space is surprising and heavily emphatic of the preceding and following images.
Although these images have been part of Mestrich’s work since 2013, the brevity of the book, which runs only sixty-two pages, can be credited to the fact that the final project was begun in October 2015 and printed in January 2016. Mestrich had spent some time attempting to construct a portrait of Joseph, with the project initially revolving around images of Joseph as an adult. As she searched for a comprehensive portrayal of him, Mestrich incorporated images from Joseph’s childhood. The collection of photographs was turned into the book project beginning in October 2015, when the adoption file from London became available, and the book evolved into a story of Joseph’s humanity and his relationship as a young boy with his mother. Joseph’s father is largely excluded from the project, aside from one portrait in the first spread of the book, and an image of his shadow falling over Maureen as he takes a photograph of her pushing Joseph in a stroller. Because of his absence, the book ends up being a tribute to Joseph and Maureen’s relationship, while hinting at their abandonment by this male figure.
The cover of the book shows a photograph of Joseph as a young man, resting on a tattered copy of William Shakespeare’s works, identifiable only by the portrait on the cover. We know from this clue that Joseph survives in the system despite being orphaned. The photo book is about the relationship between a woman and her son, and about each of them as individuals; about the father figure who is spectrally present but continually remembered because of Joseph’s mixed race; about poverty and mental illness; and about a system of fostering and adoption that enhances feelings of abandonment rather than dispelling them.
Throughout the book, the pairing of text and imagery serves to craft identity. The negative language of the text suggests to the reader what is not true, what is dubious, and what is exceedingly harsh judgment while the photographs show the reader a small sample of what Joseph’s life with Maureen was like. The images and text craft identity in combination, and the images serve to give that identity a compassionate humanity. Hard to Place is just as much about adoption, abandonment, family, and home as it is about skin color.
Amanda Chestnut is the current artist in residence in printing and book arts at the Genesee Center for the Arts & Education in Rochester, New York. Her installation Why do you have to make everything about race? (2015) was shown most recently at the Bridge Gallery in Geneseo, New York, in April 2016.