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Exploring the Legacy of Family History and Slavery: A Meditation on Maren Hassinger’s Art

Maren Hassinger
Maren Hassinger

The live performance is inspired by Maren Hassinger 2005 video titled “Birthright,” which delves into her family’s story, exploring the legacy of slavery and its profound impact on generations. In this performance, Hassinger invites visitors to engage in a meditative ritual of twisting newspaper while sharing their own family stories, creating a poignant and thought-provoking experience.

The new commission, titled “Monument,” embodies the changing landscape of public installations in urban centers and emerges at a time when the world grapples with the urgency of justice and healing, triggered by the tragic events surrounding George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, followed by the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

Maren Hassinger is a testament to transformation, emphasizing the collaborative process of creating art using recycled materials, echoing the call for justice and healing. This public work is part of a series that features outdoor sculptures by self-identified women artists from across the country, presenting a fresh perspective and contribution to the changing landscape of public art.

Initially commissioned by The Studio Museum for Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, “Monument” was unveiled in June 2018 as part of a series of outdoor sculptures, providing a space for community introspection and reflection. Hassinger’s work peacefully coexisted with the park’s surroundings, offering a meaningful context for self-discovery.

However, the significance of “Monument” in Washington, D.C. takes a new direction. Placed on an overpass above the city’s busy Connecticut Avenue, the sculpture confronts a changed urban landscape characterized by closed storefronts and makeshift tents, where homeless individuals have gathered due to a lack of housing. In this context, “Monument” carries a powerful message of transformation and hope, highlighting the idea that we are all passing through, and from these challenging circumstances, art is born.

To provide insight into Hassinger’s family history and the inspiration behind “Monument,” a live Zoom screening of her 2005 video “Birthright” will precede the installation. “Birthright” explores Hassinger’s quest to uncover her family’s past, particularly the paternal side that migrated from Louisiana to Los Angeles during the Great Migration. The video showcases Hassinger’s meditative act of twisting recycled newspaper as she reflects on the complex and painful history inherited from generations past.

In “Birthright,” viewers witness a deeply personal encounter between the artist and her uncle James, the first meeting with a long-lost family member. Through her skilled manipulation of newspaper, Hassinger metaphorically traces the twists and turns of her family’s history, a process that helps her navigate the profound and often painful legacy of her ancestors. The video underscores the enduring impact of trauma, emphasizing the idea that individuals are “twisted” by the historical injustices of their forebears.

The performance, scheduled for May at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, invites participants to join Hassinger in a circle to twist newspapers while sharing their own family stories. By engaging in this meditative act, attendees have the opportunity to contemplate their own identities, origins, and destinations.

Hassinger’s performance encourages reflection on the histories we choose to tell and the narratives that often remain untold within museum spaces. It prompts us to consider whose stories deserve to be heard and acknowledged, ultimately challenging the way history is presented and interpreted. By acknowledging the intertwined narratives of suffering and resilience, “Birthright” and “Monument” become powerful symbols of remembrance, healing, and the ongoing pursuit of justice.

As the world grapples with uncertainty and seeks a path forward, these artistic expressions serve as a reminder of the need to confront our past, acknowledge the present, and shape a future that is inclusive, just, and compassionate. Maren Hassinger’s work embodies this call to action, offering a space for meditation and dialogue on the complex tapestry of family histories and the enduring legacy of slavery.

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