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What can one tell from examining a panel of photographic portraits of different generations of blood relations – the extent to which they all have similar facial characteristics, whether they are affluent or have contented lives? When it comes to shared genetic inheritance the urge to visually compare and look for both similarities and differences is almost an instinctive one – maybe originating way back in human history when being able to distinguish kin from a rival clan might have meant the difference between life and death.
Today, most people’s general curiosity would stop at these superficial visual clues but not so artist Taryn Simon. She’s spent four years researching and photographing the living members of 18 specific family bloodlines from around the world – including those of Kenyan Joseph Nyamwanda Jura Ondijoto, Bosnian Nezir Nukic and the Ferraz and Novaes families of north-eastern Brazil. Simon’s motivation is, in part, to question what the more far-reaching effects of being part of a particular lineage might be and, by implication, also to question the existence of fate, destiny and recurring patterns of behaviour. The outcome of Simon’s endeavours – presented here in the form of a framed portrait panel, explanatory text panel and contextual photographic panel for each lineage – is being shown for the first time in this Tate Modern exhibition, ‘A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters’.
Part of the fascination in this project is that Simon has carefully chosen each bloodline for its very specific and sometimes unique attributes. For Joseph Nyamwanda it’s the fact that in his polygamous family tree some of his wives have been offered to him as payment for his treatment of a range of medical and spiritual problems. For Muslim Nezir Nukic his religious ethnicity was the reason for the murder of male members of his family in the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. For the Ferraz and Novaes families, it’s the active and violent feud between them which has been ongoing since 1913, initiated by a dispute over local political power. And for Dhanaiy Yadav, the story of a member of whose family gives the project its name, it’s the fact that in Uttar Pradesh, in India, land ownership is such a highly prized source of income that records officials are bribed to declare a relative dead in order to claim their inheritance.
Simon’s combination of photographic portraiture, documentary photography, historical research and text has all been undertaken with rigorous attention to detail and accuracy. It’s a tenacious and almost forensic approach that the artist has used to equally powerful effect in previous projects, including her 2007 work ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’. For this she photographed and annotated sites or events in America which were integral to the country’s history or current operations but were inaccessible to the public – such as the act of cloud seeding to modify weather conditions.
Also key to the impact of ‘A Living Man…’ is the unifying structure of framing and presentation. Each numbered portrait has been photographed against the same neutral background, eliminating any distracting context. Anyone unable to attend the shoot is represented by a blank photograph. In Nezir Nukic’s panel the chilling reality of what happened to some members of his family is brought home by their represention by images of bone and tooth remains, identified from mass graves by their DNA.
Whereas each accompanying text panel explains the background history to the bloodline it doesn’t explain everything; specific relationships between family members are not explicitly stated. What this does is cleverly provide just enough information for the viewer to have to work out for themselves what else this combination of information might be telling them. What stuck with me after looking at the panels about the feuding Ferraz/Novaes families, for example, was the obvious similarity to the feuding Montague and Capulet families in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (based on two real-life lovers). Whether there’s been any forbidden romance between the Brazilian families isn’t revealed, but violent feuds, as a behaviour that relates to bloodlines, is certainly one example that seems to recur.