No. 107: Family
Deadline September 1st, 2022

As the basis for social organization and the primary site of socialization, the family has drawn particular attention in the visual arts since the inception of art history. The production of images of the family has made it possible to spread a traditional and idealized vision of roles, to reinforce conventions and values, and to highlight, through intimate images, our fundamental need for connection and a sense of belonging.

A number of contemporary artists have taken up and problematized the figure of the family to probe issues such as domesticity, childhood, and siblinghood. In both painting and photography, family portraits offer opportunities for conversations. It is often by opening photo albums to gaze at snapshots that family stories are woven, past generations are celebrated, and memories and traditions are shared. A formidable tool for meaning-making, such albums usually capture, even if enigmatically, the aspects of personal identity passed down from forebears.

Even today, the family circle often serves as an absolute model of sociability and power, as political leaders are commonly described as “good family fathers,” and the nuclear family is still largely presented as a norm in advertising and cultural production. Synonymous with a refuge of well-being and safety, the bourgeois archetype is complexified by artists who remind us, through their works, that this image is a very poor fit with the numerous and disturbing stories of dysfunctional families, domestic violence, and traumas of all sorts.

For many years, feminist criticism has exposed the extraordinary power of the family to reinforce patriarchy—especially around gender roles, which are calcified in a conception of parenthood that should, instead, be feminist and alternative (bell hooks). Feminists have also brought to light the difficulties of reconciling maternity with work as an artist and the heavy psychological weight borne by women, who are generally responsible for taking care of others. And then there’s the new field of children’s studies, which reverses the perspective by examining the family unit from the world of childhood, with its own culture, history, and social constructions.

Queer thought, meanwhile, has brought forth the difficulty for LGBTQ+ individuals to find their place at the table, addressing, among other things, the violence that carries over to family reunions, in which each member must play a role (Eve K. Sedgwick) and heterosexual filiation is imposed (Sarah Ahmed). Added to this is the struggle for the right to alternatives—homoparental families or other “chosen” connections. The sense of belonging is also weakened by colonization when it tears children away from their parents, and in the diasporic experience, when migrations splinter family trees (Avtar Brah) and the imperative of adaptation causes ruptures and nostalgia (Marianne Hirsch). 

As contemporary art seems well engaged in an examination of cultural practices, the family, in all its forms, is returning to the spotlight. Drawing, notably, on the narrative potential of the photographic ritual, many artists today revisit family traditions, sites, and taboos, challenge what has been held as unspeakable by digging into archives, and invent new, intimate forms of sociability out of biographical or autobiographical experiences. For this issue, Esse arts + opinions invites authors to reflect on family histories as they are rewritten in contemporary art. What portraits do artists propose? Are there artists who choose to work as a family? How are childhood and family life represented? How do artists reactivate technical or ancestral knowledge that has been passed down? At a time when the great dream of family is fading, how does art deal with its contemporary iterations in its reconstructed versions? Can art contribute to a more honest and diversified reinvention of what tradition has built into a myth?