Art That Matters

Charlotta Kotik,

Curator Emerita, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum

When I was able to observe Ann Rosen selecting works for her exhibition, In the Presence of Family / Brooklyn Portraits in 2009, I was smitten by the artist’s testimony about changes within society. The acceptance of a new vision of what constitutes the family unit was startling, pointing to a great reevaluation of the then-governing norms. An accomplished photographer, Rosen recorded direct observation of the modern era with great empathy and understanding. Using images and excerpts from interviews with the subjects, she ably documented changing attitudes, along with a growing tolerance and acceptance of these changes.

I believe that the approach Rosen is taking in her work matters greatly, and is strengthened by her new series’, Being Seen, Part I, and Being Seen, Part 2, both exhibited in Brooklyn’s iconic Five Myles gallery. In our current socio-politically challenged times, when the whole world is reeling from the economic impacts of the recent pandemic, while simultaneously dealing with the grave impacts of a multitude of international and domestic conflicts, Rosen’s visual testimonies are essential tools for understanding the world we live in. Rosen is not just a professionally trained photographer; she is an accomplished story teller and dedicated educator who engages many different tools to probe the depths of the human experience. As clearly seen in the work she has produced over the past few years, Rosen does not shy away from focusing on the overwhelming complexities of individual or communal lives. In fact, she seeks out instances of human resilience, as seen in her portraits of women who joined her art and photography workshops, conducted in shelters throughout the United States. The present state of deepening homelessness and the exasperating lack of accessibility to mental health care are forceful invitations to document the situation. Rosen works closely with women who themselves see participation in various learning and art activities as a possibility to expand their existing agencies, and she capably develops deep and meaningful rapports with her subjects. Before photographing these women, Rosen seeks to engage them in in-depth discussions to establish how her subjects want to be seen. For the first iteration of her series, Rosen stated, “the women collaborated with me on the portraits which reflect the way they want to be seen – with strength and grace – but also reveal the instability, uncertainty and complexity connected with shelter living.” These principles of cooperation and the establishment of full trust between subject and photographer guide the work shown in the present exhibition as well.

Recently, Rosen’s workshops have included women interested in participating in programs facilitated by the Brooklyn non-profit HousingPlus, which is open to those who have experienced homelessness in the past, as well as veterans and the formerly incarcerated. Another group has also entered her “picture”: refugees from various parts of the world seeking safe haven in the United States. Through the auspices of the organization Catholic Charities Family & Community Services, Rosen was able to photograph Afghan refugees who left their country during the fateful Fall of 2021, when the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan. Afghani women in particular are affected by strict rules forbidding them from study and work; they cannot even leave their house without a male’s relative supervision. That these rules have ruined the country’s economy, and the individual lives of millions, is of little concern to the present Afghani government; subsequently, many Afghanis have decided to leave. Proud and seemingly undefeated, the subject of Rosen’s portrait, Woman in Red, projects a determination to succeed while negotiating language and cultural barriers, as well as occasional flare-ups of Islamophobia. In spite of these hardships, we are presented with the image of an individual who is poised to hold onto traditions while conquering new obstacles, firmly resolved to navigate the unknown.

While Jackie – one of the women Rosen photographed for this current series – does not have to learn how to navigate a new cultural environment, she has to overcome afflictions that befall many young women in Western society, namely the threat of alcoholism. Arrested a number of times for DWI’s, she spent time in jail but continued bartending, and was essentially intoxicated 24/7. Ultimately, she checked into an intensive inpatient program, followed by a stay in a halfway house, where she began to apply to various schools. She is now fully in command of her life, free of addiction and working to help fellow addicts in their recovery.

The tragic inadequacies of the mental health system in the United States are exemplified by the fate of Jamela, a gifted teenager whose disciplinary issues got her kicked out of her home while in high school, which in turn exacerbated underlying mental health issues. Having gone through a number of youth shelters, Jamela was nevertheless unprepared for the brutality of adult shelters. Trying to escape her dire surrounding, she opted to enroll in technology training, got a job and a place of her own. Nevertheless, her untreated mental health issues worsened, leading to the loss of everything she worked so hard to achieve. Her story ends with a familiar cry for help, which presently goes unanswered for so many women.

It is imperative that our society allocates sufficient resources to those in need, and that the artists such as Ann Rosen are able of bringing attention to situations such as this one. Through her work, Rosen highlights a path toward solutions that will ultimately enrich all, regardless of race or place of origin. It is through understanding and empathy that we can build a stable and just society, and right the ills that endanger the world as a whole.