Artists Are Reimagining the Family Portrait to Be More Inclusive

Ayanna Dozier
Apr 7, 2022 8:47PM

Destiny Belgrave, Manna From Heaven, 2019. © Destiny Belgrave. Courtesy of Tamara Weg, The Art Crush Collection.

The family portrait has long been a conservative genre, often focused on the nuclear family ideal: a father, a mother, and two kids of opposite genders. Yet today, the genre is being transformed by queer, nonbinary, and BIPOC artists who are reframing the concept of family and focusing on social bonds rather than biological ones.

Family portraiture has historically been homogenous when it comes to representation. The genre has served to forge generational legacies, often through facial likenesses. The exhibition “The Nature of Family Portrait,” at Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center in the Bronx, wrestles the genre away from relatives who resemble one another and towards individuals who share affinities, including friendships, communities, and ancestral traditions.

Devin Osorio, La Vaca Hecho Florero, 2021. © Devin Osorio. Courtesy of the artist.

Devin Osorio, El Gallo Hecho Floreno, 2021. © Devin Osorio. Courtesy of the artist.


“The Nature of Family Portrait” includes works by Devin Osorio, Destiny Belgrave, Maia Cruz Palileo, and Sean-Kierre Lyons. “The exhibition expands the family for those who feel alienated or erased in the genre of the family portrait,” said curator Jesse Firestone, who mentored Belgrave and Palileo when they were in residence. The exhibition is located inside one of the former living quarters at Wave Hill. For Firestone, this was an opportunity to interrogate the genre in a space where actual family portraits of the previous owners reside as displays of power and generational wealth.

In a trio of bright acrylic paintings, Osorio interrogates the notion of the “familial” through hybrid creatures inspired by their Dominican heritage and the history of colonization in the Caribbean. Their family portraits are not of immediate family members, but rather portraits of archetypes, like the mother and father. In La Vaca Hecho Florero (2021), Osorio paints the mother, though her body is merged with a Brahman cow. The artist uses hybridity to reflect upon the exploitation of mothers as caregivers—in that they use both their body and labor to provide sustenance to their families—that mirror the exploitation of cows.

The concept of the family is one of contestation for Osorio as their work expands the notion of the family to be a collective experience and to encompass ancestors and lost civilizations. Scattered across their paintings—including El Gallo Hecho Floreno (2021), the masculine counterpart to La Vaca Hecho Florero—we see gray glyphs that resemble Zapotec symbols. “They represent institutional erasure of indigenous cultures in the Caribbean that render it unknowable to many, including those who live on the islands,” Firestone explained.

Belgrave’s exquisite paper cutouts feature women of her own familial heritage while reframing domestic spaces like the kitchen. In her works, the kitchen becomes a site of womanly adoration, rather than a space of oppression. In Manna from Heaven (2019), a standout of the exhibition, Belgrave portrays a matriarch who represents all of the women in her family history—including the social (nonbiological) mothers, grandmothers, and aunties that emerge across Black communal customs.

Belgrave also introduces food, like collard greens, into her version of family portraiture as a way to represent cultural legacies. Collard greens, while available to everyone, have a very precious foundation in Southern Black American soul food. Belgrave’s frequent use of collard greens across portraits in the exhibition acknowledges the history of food scarcity that Black Americans experienced through slavery and its emergent aftermath, when land cultivation was not available to them. Vegetables like collard greens ended up becoming a multipurpose dish that was relatively easy to grow.

In their own family portraits, Palileo inserts themself into memories that they was not present for. Working with images of their late mother and grandfather, they create paintings that explore the disconnect between generations and geography that arises through migration. Palileo uses old family photographs to plan out their compositions, then removes family members and replaces them with objects from their current life in the United States. Playing with notions of substitution and absence, the artist forges connections between themself and their Filipino elders.

In the oil painting Woman Leaning on a White Tigress (2016)—painted while they were in residence at Wave Hill—Palileo uses a photograph of their mother and a friend as a reference. They replace their mother with the prominent white tigress tree at Wave Hill. As a result, Palileo represents the essence, rather than the likeness, of their mother, as a stable force in their current life in the United States.

Palileo’s expressive use of oil paint allows them to convey emotions and loss in their family portraits. There’s an eerie similarity to Arshile Gorky’s Portrait of an Artist and His Mother (1926–42) in their work, in the way both artists employ intense brushstrokes to convey the loss of a mother.

Lyons uses whimsy and nature to represent social families in their series of miniature portraits entitled “The Black Flower Forest” (2020–present). The works portray floral figures that are inspired by historical images of Black Americans. These figures exist in a fantasy space where Black people are freed from their systemic oppression. For Lyons, the biological family, alongside customs like inheritance, become irrelevant when freedom exists.

Installation view of “The Nature of the Family Portrait,” 2022, at Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center. Courtesy of Jesse Firestone; Wave Hill.

There are clear traces of minstrel stereotypes within Lyons’s prints, including the figures’ enlarged red lips and deep black skin. While the legacies of minstrelsy go unremarked on the wall label, their uneasy presence relates to the larger difficulties surrounding expanding portraiture legacies to include and accurately represent non-white cultural communities. This is to say, that for some social imaginations of the family, painful imagery is inevitably part of that representation.

Firestone tackles the difficulty of the family, both socially and biologically, head-on. “The role of portraiture allows us to view it as an amalgam for the self that is forged through communities and larger cultures, and not just isolated in time,” he said. “The Nature of Family Portraits” uses the genre of the family portrait to express alternative, more inclusive ways to represent the people and communities we choose to surround ourselves with today.

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.