CRM Journal

Media Review

Finding Family Stories

Japanese American National Museum, California African American Museum, the Chinese American Museum, and the Self Help Graphics & Arts, Inc.; maintained by the Japanese American National Museum; accessed July 9, 2003.


Finding Family Stories is an online exhibit developed through collaboration among several Los Angeles museums to give artists a primary voice in addressing the common themes of family, community, and history. The Finding Family Stories project began in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest that followed the arrest of Rodney King. Initiated as an Arts Partnership Project in 1995, the California African American Museum, the Chinese American Museum, the Japanese American National Museum, and Self Help Graphics & Arts, Inc., sponsored an exhibit of contemporary art, which became the catalyst for dialogue about what it meant to be part of Los Angeles during the events of the mid-1990s.

Between 1995 and 1998, the Finding Family Stories project circulated among several sites to encourage audiences to traverse throughout the many layers of Los Angeles and discover new places, neighborhoods, and experiences. The project allowed people to interact outside the limited and defined boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, and encouraged the viewer to consider his or her own family histories comparatively.

Now through the digital exhibit Finding Family Stories, the visitor may read narratives by artists on the theme of family and view the artists' interpretive works. Narratives include a short story by Luis Alfaro entitled, "Everybody Has a Story: Who's Listening?" Mr. Alfaro focuses on his personal life downtown, particularly on the seemingly mundane corner of Los Angeles's Pico and Union Streets. "I wanted to be like the sobadora in the Projects, a vessel of memory, who could pass along all the important things", the author says. "I wanted to ask questions and I wanted to look for answers. And wouldn't you know that the 17 years since I have been gone from that place, that is all I write about. That corner in Pico-Union."

Another reflective story by Roberto Bedoya, "Shoulder to Shoulder," evaluates an America that is "increasingly more ethnically diverse and, in turn, culturally complex." Bedoya captures the spirit of finding family stories within an "aesthetic utopia realized in the acts of sharing." The "we" of Southern California "escapes finessing but grows in multiplicity and possibilities." How many languages are spoken in the Los Angeles United School District? How is my family like your family? How is it different? How are stories told among Jewish-American, Native-American, and Asian-American communities related?

Sandra de la Loza develops her piece, "Brothers 2002," by sifting through family photographs. The influence of her Los Angeles-born parents who came of age during the Zoot Suit/Pachuco era of the late 1940s is evident in the artist's work. She refers to the "Americanization of programs in public schools designed to erase traces of 'Mexican-ness'." To de la Loza, "Family and community have been created from their place in the world, to allow a representation that is as dense, thick, and multi-layered as the landscape we navigate through."

In contrast, Michael Massenburg explores his family's beginnings from the African slave trade to the present. Although the family survived and prospered by maintaining a sense of hope and spirituality, Massenburg's assemblage piece, "In Time," expresses what he defines as "empty spaces." "Regardless of the stories I've discovered," he says, "I want more. I want the stories that make sense to me. Through the process, I learned how precious time is, for when we die, our stories go with us." His work searches for answers to fundamental questions: "What is still missing? What can I put in the empty places to bridge it all together?"

Dominique Moody's piece, "Tales of a Family Tree," captures a sense of family through images that convey not just a view of a face or a figure, but an experience to touch our emotions. To Moody, her art resonates "because of the stories it tells—personal experiences with universal meanings, junctures at which people meet and transcend the barriers of the written word." But how does family influence the individual? How does the individual influence family? What is our role within this group? What experiences bind us to one another? "We are family and yet we are at times strangers separated by time and distance."

While the artists' expressions and interpretations in the Finding Family Stories website range from abstract forms to literal assemblages, these and other individuals share a common theme of family stories. The common bond of family is organized through the interaction of the artists, organizations, and the public. Intangible cultural heritage and its expression within a community is examined. The responsibility is for us, the outsider, to discover our own family complexity within the universal experiences of place and community.

Gerry Takano
TBA West, Inc., San Francisco