Genesis, oil on canvas, artificial grass, leather rope
Mohr: Bloodlines in Life and Art
I grew up with a mother who was a single parent, a U.S. immigrant from Grenada. There was a lot of Grenadian, and more broadly, Caribbean pride in her household. Unfortunately, due to colonial history, our family. like many black families in the Americas, has no knowledge of where we came from in Africa.
Growing up I identified as black and didn't develop much curiosity about my father's ethnic origins until he came into my life when I was around 10 years old. He was extremely proud of his Italian heritage and has told me quite a bit about our ancestry.
My father’s side of the family lived in Itri, an ancient town between Rome and Naples. His grandparents (my great grandparents) Giuseppe and Giovannina Matrullo, were married shortly before they came to the United States in 1899. Both were around 21 years old. Giovannina (whose name was Americanized to Jennie when she got here) had worked as a seamstress in Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples. Giuseppe had worked for the Italian Customs service. I’m told he rode a horse and carried a pistol for his job. He was educated enough to read and write Italian.
Giuseppe and Giovannina lived in Little Italy, first at 169 Hester Street and then at 144 Hester, on the top floor. Many of the locals would ask Giuseppe to write letters in Italian for them, or to read the Italian news. Family lore has it that he was a good-humored guy who worked as a longshoreman until he and Giovannina moved to Hackensack, New Jersey.
Giovannina, who died long before I was born, gave birth to 14 boys and one girl, but only five boys survived: Nick, Albert, Mario, Vincent, and my granddad, C. James (the C was for Clarence, but he never used that name). My dad knew my great-grandfather Giuseppe a little. He still lived in the house in Hackensack.
One family member I can tell you about is Millicent, my great aunt Millie, who married one of my grandfather’s brothers—Mario. They lived in Brooklyn. Mario died young, at 31, so Millie raised their two children, Jeanette and Dolores, by herself. She was a skillful seamstress and worked at Joselli’s. a fashionable clothing maker back then. Jeanette, who is now 92, remembers the house that Giuseppi and Giovannina lived in, on Fair Street in Hackensack. Her dad, she said, bought it for them. “They had a high bed—three mattresses.” She also remembers that when she and her parents lived on 64th Street in Brooklyn they had the first refrigerator on the block.
As an adult, I am in touch with my father, Tom Matrullo, a half brother and half sister, as well as my cousin, Nancy Azara, whom I connected with on 23andMe. Nancy and I share a lot in common, including being visual artists, members of the LGBTQ community, and living in New York City.
The work you see here is from the series, Bloodlines, a creation myth I engendered as an ode to Gaia, the original Black Mother, creator of humankind. Despite the subject matter and narrative revolving around Africa, the first three installations of the series have paintings inspired by the Italian Renaissance: Genesis, inspired by Raphael’s Disputation of the Holy Sacrament; The First Judgement, inspired by Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel; and Descension, inspired by Rosso Fiorentino’s Descent from the Cross. I did this to marry Italian tradition with my iconography and subject matter—the mother figure, acacia tree, and African continent—embedded in each piece.
The First Judgement, 2020; acrylic on canvas, dyed wood, artificial grass, leather rope, assemblage
Painting detail with full view inset
Descension, 2020; painted and dyed wood, oil on canvas, light, LED lights, artificial grass, mirror, leather rope
Installation detail with full view inset
Dario Mohr at his recent solo