Who is Family?

Family of Seven, 1946, by James Van Der Zee, © Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee



Was it by chance? Or, was it ordained… that I would meet the extraordinary widow of James Van Der Zee, the noted Harlem Renaissance photographer at an ordinary gathering of the Mt. Vernon Arts Council. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I was pleased to meet Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee who married James in 1978. “Van” as she warmly refers to him, was a photo hero, plying his unique talent in his studio and in the greater Harlem community.

I had been told by my board member the late Larry Salley that Van Der Zee was the “go-to” chronicler of important people and events in the African American community in the 20th century. I knew his work was in the collections of the Schomburg and the Smithsonian so I was in awe that here, seated a yard away, was an inspired woman who dedicated herself to maintaining her husband’s legacy. Donna saved, stored, protected and preserved for the world to see hundreds of prints and negatives that reveal the sheer artistry of Van Der Zee’s work. At ArtsWestchester, as we got to know Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee and the extent of the archive, we became fascinated with the photographer’s focus on the family unit. We began to reflect on family units today and how they increasingly include “chosen” families, which Van Der Zee portrayed in photos of sports teams and fraternal clubs.

Slowly, what emerged was a thoughtful exhibition about families — not just the ones into which we are born — but the ones we choose. Modern Families is a wide-ranging photographic inquiry into who and what constitutes the American family today. Anchored by 33 rarely exhibited works by Van Der Zee, which Donna graciously loaned, this project explores the diverse faces and relationships that represent “family” from the perspectives of eleven regional photographers.  While the American family is continually changing its composition, it is still the organizing construct of a group of individuals united by a common bond.

Modern Families is on view in ArtsWestchester’s Gallery from March 5 through May 25 with an opening reception on March 3 from 2-4pm.