(MADISON, NJ) -- Cheryl Harper’s Passages: An Installation in Progress comes to the Korn Gallery at Drew University in Madison now through October 22, 2021. Harper, a 1976 alum of Drew, returns to present a exhibition that encompasses her reckoning of marrying into a family that enslaved for over 150 years in the United States and as a member of the post-Holocaust generation in America who only recently discovered how some members of her family met their ends as Jews in Czechoslovakia in 1942. The annihilation of Jews and the luck of immigration in her family was only a decade removed from her birth.
On the other side, her husband’s generation knew nothing of its plantation past and hundreds of enslaved people ancestors possessed against their wills.
The themes of predator and prey have been part of Harper’s oeuvre since the 1980s when she was able to explore her experiences of being an outsider in a dominant culture.
In the room scaled installation, Harper envelops the viewer in 10-foot high mixed media wallpapers that incorporate imagery of privilege, dominance, and loss. This is not a celebration of southern heritage but of its decadence and the struggles of enslaved peoples on the other.
The southern side, ironically, were escaping religious persecution as Huguenots, before they came to South Carolina and purchased slaves for a new venture as planters. Success came quickly. Harper and her husband visited locations of family plantations, searched tax records and wills, then census records to find the paths of all involved. Of her Jewish family, a common frustration is that records are elusive for what happened to aunts and cousins. It was a loss that compounded through generations, much like the questions descendants of the American enslaved experience. However, companies like Ancestry bring together information and newly released databases about the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia gave Harper answers for close relatives she didn’t know she was looking for. The records of others are still mysteries.
In this installation, in addition to wallpaper, original wedding dresses from women on both sides were appliqued and layered set above troves of objects suggesting their social classes.
While very personal, it is really the about the wider experience of how one family can have the stain of enslaving in America on one side and the dehumanization of family members murdered during the Holocaust on the other. In this melting pot of a country, one can find that two very different kinds of histories can come together if one takes the effort to explore it. It helps us find empathy in unexpected places.