Collection Explore
Visual Response
Daesha Devón Harris
on Tending Our Mothers’ Gardens
Daesha Devón Harris, *Tending Our Mothers’ Gardens (Lydia Bernard-Jones)*, Summer 2019, archival pigment print, 36 x 27 inches, courtesy of the artist
Daesha Devón Harris, Tending Our Mothers’ Gardens (Lydia Bernard-Jones), Summer 2019, archival pigment print, 36 x 27 inches, courtesy of the artist

When I first saw the Tang Teaching Museum’s recently acquired collection of more than five hundred found photographs, I was thrilled. The imagery, which includes various aspects of Black life, is rich, familiar, joyful, and robust. I was curious about the designation as “vernacular” photographs, knowing that this title can be used both to differentiate “fine art” from “non-art” and to describe everyday life. It was important to me, while working with student collaborator Amanda Peckler ’20 in the museum, to think about the many art forms that have purposely been excluded from the categorization of “fine art”—craft, folk art, outsider art, street art, documentary, etc.—and to consider why. The language we use is important, and the histories of these terms can inform how we view the work that has been institutionally set apart. What becomes clear is that these distinctions are commonly made along the lines of race, gender, and class.

We approached the collection with an awareness of what has historically been considered valuable and who has had the privilege of making that work. In the Tang collection, we see intimate moments, thoughtful portraits, celebrations, pride of accomplishments and ownership, outdoor leisure, joy!, the home, interracial relationships, and family love. These are real life experiences that challenge prevailing (negative) stereotypes of Black life. In a sense, this “amateur” work has more truth and value to me than most art in museum collections, particularly when it comes to African American subject matter, considering that 85 percent of work in eighteen major US museums belongs to white artists, and 87 percent is by men. African American artists have made just 1.2 percent of the total work across these institutions.(1)

We explored the collection, making categories according to subjects of interest, each time narrowing them down to smaller piles and fewer categories. Some of my favorite themes include family picnics, doorways/thresholds (the place or point of entering or beginning), portraits (studio and environment), and beach scenes (in reverence for the season). After much deliberation, I decided to make a celebratory photograph based on my favorite portrait in the collection. The image shows a beautiful young woman sitting in front of a hand-painted backdrop. Her gaze is direct and seems a little sad or reflective, but at the same time, she gives a subtle “smize.” I imagine she is at a threshold in her life, possibly marking a recent achievement, maybe leaving home for the next step of life. What is in her hands? Does she hold something? If so, will she carry it with her? What I love most is the painted nature scene that places her in a dreamlike space, a space open to possibilities. The image, by an unrecorded maker, is reminiscent of the ubiquitous Mona Lisa, who also sits against an imaginary landscape and emanates a similar expression.

info Created with Sketch. plus Created with Sketch.
Unrecorded artist
title unknown, n.d.
gelatin silver print
Gift of Peter J. Cohen

Inspired by Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1974), I wanted to incorporate my own garden, which I inherited from my mother and which holds memories of my paternal grandmother, who was also a passionate gardener. The essay speaks to the unyielding spirit of Black women throughout history in the face of racial and gender oppression and the ways in which they exercised creative freedom by any and all means afforded to them. I knew exactly the person to sit for the photograph: a brilliant young woman at a threshold, just graduated from Skidmore, full of life and promise, embarking on a new and remarkable journey. It was meaningful to me to photograph her at my home and to include the original photograph in my new work. Rather than create the backdrop with paint and brush, I used the natural environment and light, incorporating flowers and shrubs that I’ve nurtured and that embody histories of their own.

Toward the end of the essay, as she describes her mother’s garden work, Walker writes:

She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities—and the will to grasp them.

For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life. This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.(2)

I consider it an honor to continue tending these gardens. No matter the accolades of the artist, it is the intention of their work that is valuable to me.

About Daesha Devón Harris
Daesha Devón Harris is an artist and photographer based in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her multicultural family and the unexpected death of her young father have greatly shaped her life while the gentrification of her hometown and its effects on the local Black community have played a major role in both her advocacy work and artistic practice. Harris has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, and is Lecturer in MDOCS and Teaching Faculty for the Storytellers’ Institute at Skidmore College.

Cite this page

Devón Harris, Daesha. “Daesha Devón Harris on Tending Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).
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