family and archival photos from Smoketown in Louisville, Kentucky

A detail from "A Smoketown Family Album" by Alonso Nichols.

Artists Explore the Past Through Family Photos, Dark Humor, and Lots of Hugs

Works by five SMFA at Tufts students and recent alumni are now on display at the MFA

In “SMFA at Tufts: Archive and Autobiography,” a juried show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, five emerging Tufts artists have worked in a range of media—including video, photography, painting, and fiber arts—to explore memory, storytelling, and history.

Some of the artists draw on archival material, including family photos, historical accounts, and public records, to inform their works or become physical pieces of it. For others, the artwork itself becomes an archive, albeit an unconventional one, documenting their own experiences and even traumas.

The exhibit was curated by Museum Education graduate Michaela Antunes Blanc, AG22, and Jennifer Gee, AG23, a student in the Art History and Museum Studies program, along with Kendall deBoer, an MFA curatorial assistant of contemporary art. 

Organized with support from the Tufts University Art Galleries, this is the fourth collaborative exhibition that the MFA has hosted in support of the next generation of promising artists and curators coming out of Tufts.

Below, you can listen to the artists talk about their works, which are on display at the MFA’s Linde Gallery through April 16.

Tufts students, faculty, and staff have free admission to the MFA with a Tufts ID.

Rei Xiao with her painting "It was dark inside the wolf."

Rei Xiao, A23 (BFA), “It was dark inside the wolf”

Oil on canvas

Xiao says she finds it empowering to depict a story that is grounded in reality but “evolves into another realm,” helping her feel both connected and disconnected to her past at the same time. In this surreal tableau, she is the child gazing at the viewer, joined at a table by over-sized cats. A meal of bones, a hamburger, a headless body, a chalk outline, and other disparate objects is before them. Here, Xiao talks about using dark humor to tackle difficult experiences.

a detail of fleas at a table
tuftsuniversity · Rei Xiao on “It was dark inside the wolf”

Rei Xiao: My piece is about my experience with my mom when I was in high school, and she started fostering cats. And we have like 15 cats, approximately. I’ve lost count, so that’s the average I can give you. And so my mom couldn’t afford actually taking care of all those cats, and we had flea infestation, and it was, I think, the consequence of like my mom’s mental health issues, also. And the piece is kind of tackling that and my experience and how my disconnection with my mom has let me to—in the piece, I am the same size of the cats. So it’s kind of the hierarchy at home as well. So that’s basically the story of the piece in a very short description.

Julie Flaherty: Are these the fleas?

Xiao: Yes, they are the fleas and they’re eating pieces of flesh on a plate. Yeah, <laugh> quite morbid.

Flaherty: So you’re not afraid to be a little morbid? A little…

Xiao: Yeah. I think that’s how I tackle those kinds of like traumas and experiences. Just dark humor.

Alonso Nichols and his installation "A Smoketown Family Album"

Alonso Nichols, AG22 (MFA), “A Smoketown Family Album”

Digital archival print with video panels

Smoketown, where Nichols grew up, is the oldest Black American neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. Through images of construction sites and dilapidated buildings, family photos, and online geo-location databases, Nichols comments on the contradictions of urban development in historically underserved black communities. Here, he talks about both using an archive, and creating one.

a collection of family photos
tuftsuniversity · Alonso Nichols on "A Smoketown Family Album"

Alonso Nichols: My third-great-grandparents self-emancipated and lived in Smoketown as it was becoming a Black neighborhood during reconstruction. Some of the questions that I’m very interested in are the questions of Black community and Black space.

If we talk about gentrification and we talk about the post-civil rights era, part of what I’m beginning to grapple with is what kind of community space can we, as Black Americans, maintain as inequality increases, as property values skyrocket, but also as people make progress and decide to move out of neighborhoods that their families inhabited? What does that mean? What happens to those spaces? What happens to that community? And so some of this was born out of the collective memory of my family. This collective history that we discuss and keep alive in our stories.

Some of this was born out of my family albums, and in the process of creating this work, I think of it as a counter archive. At some point, Smoketown may well have very few Black people living in it, and this work will be part of an archive that will exist so that there is a record of Black family and Black community.

Zuofu Wang, AG22 (MFA) “Water, Train, and Orange” Three channel video

Zuofu Wang, AG22 (MFA), “Water, Train, and Orange”

Three channel video

Wang, who was born in China, is intrigued by the hidden legacies left by Chinese figures in the United States. For this piece, he began by researching the role of Chinese labor in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. He discovered that after the railroad was completed in 1869, a group of Chinese workers crossed the country to work in a mill in North Adams, Massachusetts. One of those mill workers was Lue Gim Gong, who later moved to DeLand, Florida, where he developed an industry-changing cold-tolerant orange and earned awards for his horticulture. Here, Wang talks about traveling the country to capture those stories in his video.

detail from Water, Train, and Orange
tuftsuniversity · Zuofu Wang on "Water, Train, and Orange"

Zuofu Wang: It’s a yearlong project, but generally speaking, I think the filming in total is probably like hundreds of hours. It’s not a huge project but It’s kind of a very large scale compared to what I’ve done before because basically for this project I have to travel to a lot of places. Like when I film the environment in North Adams, I think I’ve been there like 10 times in total. And then I have also to go to Utah to film the reenactment of the laying of the last spike [of the Transcontinental Railroad]. And for DeLand, I also have to go to Florida to film the environment and the orange groves. So it’s a lot of traveling, but I really enjoyed the traveling. Yes. It’s really fun.

Julie Francois, A24 (BFA), with her photolitho “GLJ”

Julie Francois, A24 (BFA), “GLJ”

Hand-printed photolithography on wool fabric and AB rhinestones

The title refers to the first names of Francois and her siblings, who are shown in layered photographs through the composition. She draws inspiration from colors in the Haitian flag and sequin-covered drapo Vodou (Voodoo flags). Francois forms hearts and halos around the faces, referencing her family’s Haitian heritage and Roman Catholic upbringing. Here, she talks about her siblings and their different memories of childhood.

a detail of Julie Francois' photolitho
tuftsuniversity · Julie Francois on "GLJ"

Julie Francois: So my piece is a photolitho on wool fabric, about 5-by-6-feet big. And it’s basically a collage of my familial imagery from my family archive and photo books. I was thinking a lot about child development and perception, and I was talking to my two other siblings a lot about our childhood and how we perceived a lot of our memories and kind of these things that shaped us into the people that we are today. And how different each of our childhoods were, despite growing up in the same house, and how they affected us. And with that I was thinking about how I can represent this feeling of nostalgia, memory, child development into a piece.

The photolitho process kind of allowed for the images to not be perfectly replicated or duplicated onto the fabric. So I kind of like that to represent how I remember things and how memory’s kind of fading and fuzzy at times.

Andrew Cain, AG22 (MFA), and his sculpture “Hugging Machine”

Andrew Cain, AG22 (MFA), “Hugging Machine”

Synthetic and merino wool, fleece, upholstery foam, wood, metal, polyfill

The inspiration for the hugging machine came to Cain in the middle of the pandemic, when touching was all but forbidden. The result was a sculpture that can receive our hugs and give us softness in return. The colors and materials draw on childhood memories of stuffed animals, blankets, and other sources of comfort. Here, Cain talks about what happens during the scheduled times when the sculpture is “activated”—or open to hugs by the public.

a closeup of the hugging machine
tuftsuniversity · Andrew Cain on "Hugging Machine"

Andrew Cain: It is kind of great, because it was activated a few times. And then the last time it was activated there was a bunch of kids here and they kind of start tearing it apart, which is like my favorite thing, because something being destroyed with love is kind of just the best-case scenario when it comes to this. So I get to come in and kind of touch it up every once in a while and put it back together and kind of just—that giving nature of people coming and using the piece itself and then me coming back and gearing it up for the next batch of people. So it’s kind of like this caretaking of each other in that interaction. So it’s just really, really fun.

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