An exhibit now on display at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock showcases how a documentary photographer grieved for a beloved family matriarch.
The exhibit is titled “Not Forgotten: An Arkansas Family Album.” Photographer Nina Robinson has been telling stories through her photos for national publications for many years now. Her most recent project began as many others have, as an attempt to capture the nuances and complexities of southern life.
“In 2014, I decided, I’m going to go to the south. I haven’t been to the south in like 15 years. I said that I wanted to go by bus and travel around with random people, photograph them, tell their story,” Robinson says.
When she was young, Robinson frequently visited family members in rural southwest Arkansas, but those visits grew rare as she entered adulthood. Robinson felt this journey would be the perfect opportunity to see her relatives again. She also knew that her grandmother in the town of Dalark wasn’t doing well, and that this might be the last time they saw one another.
“My grandmother’s house was my first stop, and in that week, my grandmother passed away,” she said. “During that time, it didn’t feel right for me to pursue this adventurous, you know, road trip where I document other travelers. It just felt right to stay with my family and connect with my family.”
In mourning the family matriarch, Robinson got to know her relatives in Arkansas for the first time as an adult. She says coming at a time of great sorrow helped her come to a realization.
“It’s so important that we don’t forget the people who raised us, the people who paved way for us, and it’s so important to acknowledge them and hold them close and to make sure you keep in contact with them as much as possible.”
Although Robinson had never done anything like it before, she says the decision to document this time came easily. Photographing the rituals and practices of her loved ones as they moved through their sorrow helped her face her own grief.
Robinson intended to capture the depth and nuance of her family’s experience during those months, and in doing so, she made deliberate choices on who and what to include in the collection. The only photo featuring Robinson’s grandmother shows just her hand.
“I didn’t want to publish images of my grandmother sick in bed. I didn’t want to photograph her in her casket. I didn’t feel that was necessary,” Robinson says. “There’s a lot of images in this body of work that you can feel loss. You don’t necessarily need to see that, it doesn’t need to be so literal.”
Christina Shutt, executive director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, says she first saw Robinson’s photos in a New York Times article. She knew immediately that she wanted to feature her work because telling the black story is a big part of what the center does.
Shutt says her favorite photo is of one of Robinson’s young relatives.
“There’s this great image of your cousin, and she’s eating an apple, like a caramel apple, and she is like taking the most delight in that caramel apple,” Shutt says. “She’s got on this beautiful like bright pink dress and the sun is cascading over the back of her head, and it just, it feels summer when you see that image.”
While such joyful photos may not seem to fit in a collection exploring a tremendous loss, Robinson says that shared love was crucial in her family members supporting one another.
“This was a healing project, but it was also a project of love, photographing loss. But there’s also life after loss,” Robinson says. “Life still continues, and that’s why this is a tribute to my grandmother. What still continues to exist in a rural black community. What traditions are we continuing after our matriarch is gone.”
Nina Robinson’s exhibit runs through September 2 at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. She will also be conducting photography workshops there in the coming weeks. For more information, visit the Mosaic Templars's website.