‘Mama’s Boys’ pictures mothers who have lost sons to systemic violence

The August Wilson African American Cultural Center (Pittsburgh) presents “OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys,” an interactive, multimedia exhibit that addresses the trauma and healing of mothers who have lost their sons to systemic violence and aims to highlight their legacies and cement it in history. The exhibit, by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, artist, and AWAACC B.U.I.L.D artist-in-residence Emmai Alaquiva, includes 10 portraits of the victims’ mothers: Gwen Carr, Mama of Eric Garner; Valerie Castile, Mama of Philando Castile; Wanda Cooper-Jones, Mama of Ahmaud Arbery; Sybrina Fulton, Mama of Trayvon Martin; Latonya Green, featured with her son, Leon Ford; Allison Jean, Mama of Botham Jean; Rev. Wanda Johnson, Mama of Oscar Grant; Michelle Kenney, Mama of Antwon Rose II; Lezley McSpadden, Mama of Mike Brown; and Samaria Rice, Mama of Tamir Rice. Alongside the portraits are a curated collection of the boys’ artifacts and imagery of the past two years of protest.

Captured through Alaquiva’s galvanizing lens and cinematic, provocative storytelling, the kindred journeys of mothers around the world are shared through artistic love letters in the form of photography, film, mixed media, and augmented reality. “OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys” embodies AWAACC’s mission to provide artistic and educational programming to the public that focuses exclusively on the African American experience and champions artists whose work reflects the universal issues that Pittsburgh native and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, the late August Wilson tackled through his works.

The exhibition, and an accompanying short film are centered around the question: “What does healing look like?” that provides a narrative from the point of view of the strong women on their journeys of healing. “OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys” will also include a historical timeline that includes slavery, policing, change agents, and social movements accompanied by a resource guide where visitors can find additional educational materials.

“My truthful intention with ‘OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys’ is to hug the very core of a mother’s heart through the cathartic vessel of art,” Emmai Alaquiva said. “I have a passionate belief that we, as artists, must crystallize truth in our creative expressions. I started working on OVMB in the summer of 2020, which proved to be a season of emotional and political turmoil around the world. Hearing George Floyd, a human being we lost to senseless violence, call for his ‘Mama’ during his last moments struck a nerve that would not dissolve until I moved in a direction of creating something that meant something. As I thought of my own mother, I prayed to be led into the right direction of time and space with mothers to ensure the legacies of sons (and daughters) that we lost live on for generations to come, all in the name of healing. I was keenly aware that rainy days can be painful relating to this subject matter, but I also know that rain is one of the greatest signs of growth and healing, and it is ok to play in it. We grow together; we heal together.”

The exhibition will be on view October 22, 2022 through January 29, 2023.

“’OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys’ is a platform through which the stories of mothers, families, and communities who have suffered at the hands of systemic violence can be told,” AWAACC President and CEO Janis Burley Wilson said. “Our ongoing relationship with Emmai and our shared mission to center the lived experiences of Black Americans led us to create a space where these important conversations can be shared through the power of the arts.”

The AWAACC’s B.U.I.L.D Residency program is made possible with funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

“I am blessed and forever indebted to The August Wilson African American Cultural Center for remaining steadfast in its partnership with myself and my creative arts endeavors. This strategic artistic partnership has endowed me to the opportunity to develop as an artist and create with boundless imagination. I was honored as an inaugural artist in residence and am continuing to fully realize the scope of this transformative relationship, which continues with this next release, ‘OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys,’” Alaquiva said.

In addition to OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys, AWAACCs permanent exhibition, “August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape,” features artifacts from Wilson’s Estate and recreations of ephemera from the 1900s to early 2000s that provide historical context for his writings, augmented by audio recordings of Wilson’s acclaimed works. “The Writer’s Landscape” gives an additional voice to the people, places, and language that shaped the worldview of August Wilson. The exhibition offers audiences the opportunity to engage with August Wilson’s work through the lens of the community he knew best, illuminating his impact and enduring relevance.

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