In Michelangelo’s legendary Pietà, on view at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Mary holds her slain son Jesus in her lap. Her expression is placid. Perhaps that’s stunned grief, or maybe it’s acceptance as she bows to God’s will.
In his stark, tender exhibition “Stranger Fruit,” at Abakus Projects, photographer Jon Henry fuses the Pietà with “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s mournful anthem about lynching: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees . . . ”
Henry’s portraits of Black women holding their sons respond to murders of Black men by police. The series is now out in book form from +KGP|Monolith.
“The mothers in the photographs have not lost their sons, but understand the reality, that this could happen to their family,” he writes in his artist’s statement.
Each image is a gut punch. These women do not gaze quietly down at the boys and young men they cradle. They level their eyes directly at us in grief, anger, and exhaustion. In pleas — or demands – for accountability.
Henry is canny about echoing Michelangelo. In “Untitled #10, Flushing, NY.,” a mother cradles her adult son in her lap in front of a candlelit altar in a darkened church. The mother in “Untitled #48, Inglewood, CA.,” holds a young boy in a parking lot. Her brow is furrowed, her eyes weary but penetrating. They’re outside a Target store, directly beneath the red bullseye of the store’s logo. There’s no question who’s a target here, and the circle over his mother’s head evokes Mary’s halo.
In a nod to their wretched grief, Henry pairs many photos with smaller images of the mothers alone. The woman in “Untitled #13, Groveland Park, IL.” holds her fallen son on a clear day by the water. In the accompanying “Untitled #16, South Side Chicago, IL.,” all she has left is the view.
The Bible tells us Jesus “died for our sins.” “Stranger Fruit” suggests that young Black men are dying for the sins of Americans entangled in systemic racism — all of us. But Jesus knew and submitted to the path he was on. Henry’s photographs, and the mothers at the center of them, bluntly remind us that victims of police violence don’t have that agency.
JON HENRY: STRANGER FRUIT
At Abakus Projects, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 28. 857-237-8532, www.abakusprojects.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.