Healing Trauma Through Art

Photographer–psychoanalyst Rachelle Mozman Solano focuses on her Panamanian roots to overcome old wounds of colonization passed from one generation to the next

A barefoot Latinx woman in white face and hair festooned with American flags is posed like a runner about to take off into a collage of forbidding desert images. In this chromogenic print from Rachelle Mozman Solano’s series, Venas Abiertas (Open Veins), the woman is surrounded by cacti, a wild-eyed horse, and a skeleton of someone who may have tried the crossing before. The title of the photograph comes in the language of white supremacy: We have to contend with an alien race, one with a different language, different customs, different moral standards, and different diseases. Yet, in the woman’s eyes and poise, we see a determination that belies this heartless title.

There is a vibrancy to Mozman Solano’s work—a playfulness in her use of color, collage, and symbols—that draws the viewer in as much as her poignant subject matter. Creative inspiration and insights from her dual career as artist and clinical psychoanalyst intersect in the photography, filmmaking, and teaching of Mozman Solano, a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.

Through these disciplines, she focuses her lens on the history of colonization, often in her maternal ancestral home of Panama, and on how, in her words, this history “impacts economics of individuals, their psyche, and their personal identity.”

Rachelle Mozman Solano, Professor of the Practice in Photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts

Rachelle Mozman Solano

Born and raised by immigrant parents in New York City, Mozman Solano attended LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and the Performing Arts. She earned a BFA in photography and also studied film and media studies at the State University of New York at Purchase before earning an MFA in photography at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1998.

Also in 1998, she embarked on a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate race, economics, and demographics in Panama, the birthplace of her first-generation immigrant mother. Soon after returning to New York, she enrolled at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, beginning 14 years of training and seven more in clinical practice until 2017. She joined the faculty at Tufts in 2018. All the while, her art career evolved with major exhibitions and teaching appointments.

“When I began pursuing psychoanalysis after my MFA, I worried it might take me away from my artwork,” she recalled. “But what it’s really done is deepen not just my art, but also my understanding of what I’m interested in. That’s something I try to get across to my students: to not fear being interested in other disciples. They are only going to expand upon your art practice,” she said.

Mozman Solano divides her time between the United States and Panama. She said that like many children of immigrants, she identifies with both cultures, and she brings this insight into her art.

“I find myself constantly interested in making work about Panama because it's like a magnetic force,” said Mozman Solano. “When I arrive there, I feel this pulsation. Its history is so rich. The history of the United States is different, but there is a lot of overlap. I think most people aren’t aware of how much we share, and I’m interested in seeing that awareness grow, especially as the population of Latinx people in this country will surpass all other minority groups, if it hasn’t already.”

Healing Trauma from the Past

From an early age, “art was the way for me to keep sane,” Mozman Solano recalled. “It was a way for me to feel safe, to create boundaries in my environment, to take control. I think that is true for most artists. But then you realize you need more strategies for mental health,” she noted with a gentle laugh.

Mozman Solano puts such strategies to work in her art, exploring the traumatic impact of colonization on Panamanians across generations. “Acknowledging how the past impacts the present will impact the future,” she said. “In doing that, you're able to shift the intergenerational pattern of trauma. It can stop right there.”

She notes that depression and anxiety can be deeply rooted in socioeconomic causations that span generations. Realizing how this can affect day-to-day lives was a real turning point for her, she said. “I think that is what drove me to study psychoanalysis. It was very healing for me personally.”

Stories of people’s daily lives, with all their unique details of character, are what seem to fascinate Mozman Solano most in her photography and film. For her recent film All These Things I Carry with Me, she interviewed her mother about migrating to the U.S. in the late 1960s. She had an actor work with the transcriptions, copying how her mother stood, gestured, and enunciated each word. The director’s camera zeroes in on these inflections and small movements, bringing to the screen a sense of the isolation and the microaggressions her mother experienced.

Mozman Solano compared what the viewer sees to that of a therapist observing a patient in a consultation room. “The film addresses my fascination in somatic moments that reveal the unconscious and our use of language, bringing to the surface our deep emotion,” she said.

It echoes an earlier series of photographs, Casa de Mujeres (House of Women), where Mozman Solano’s mother posed as three different characters enacting domestic activities in a Latin American home. Housemaid or lady of the house, each character is trapped in her racial and class roles. Through intense gazes, sometimes fixed directly on the camera, each conveys a keen sense of self-awareness and dignity that transcend her stiff composure as she fixes her chignon in a mirror or kneels on the floor to give her employer a manicure.

“Acknowledging how the past impacts the present will impact the future.
In doing that, you're able to shift the intergenerational pattern of trauma.
It can stop right there.” 

Rachelle Mozman Solano

Psychoanalytic Theory and Art

At SMFA at Tufts, Mozman Solano teaches photography courses in topics ranging from digital printing to portraiture. Even in these “straight photography” classes, she tends to “bring in a little bit of psychoanalysis,” she said. “When you’re making a portrait, for example, it’s really a projection of yourself onto another person. I’m trying to have the students see that and think of the other.”

She also leads several “psychoanalysis hybrid classes,” such as “Image, Narrative, Psychoanalysis,” which is open to artists working in any medium. In this class, students read and discuss weekly articles on psychoanalytical theory while working on their art projects. “This gives them language and structure as they think about, change, and deepen what they’re making,” she said.

“There’s an openness now to therapy and to psychoanalysis in particular,” she said. “I think it’s because the students are so interested in healing and acknowledging how the past impacts the present. My parents’ generation was trying to sweep the past under the rug.”

Mozman Solano’s academic instruction, like her art, acknowledges how the present can impact the future with the power to heal trauma we carry from the past. By asking the viewer to recognize this through the characters in her photographs and films, she aims to share this insight through her art, and perhaps through the work of her students, for generations to come.

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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