A diary unlocked
A Visual Autobiography of Abuse and Neglect tells candid, haunting stories of the artist’s childhood
The black and white photographs are small, simple and benign. They are portraits of ordinary objects, like a pair of shoes and a report card. They contain no hints of horror or betrayal or abuse.
The photographs are not what make me walk away.
These photos are one half of Catana Barnes’ A Visual Autobiography of Abuse and Neglect, on display at McNamara Gallery. The visual chronicle is accompanied by direct, unadorned written accounts of Barnes’ childhood and early adult life. The accounts begin at age 2, when adult relatives urged the preschooler to take sips of alcoholic beverages.
“The last thing I remember was sitting on the living room couch with a large bowl on my head,” Barnes writes. “My mother was next to me, laughing.” The photograph shows an uncorked bottle and a half-empty wine glass. The caption reads, “age two: i remember everyone laughed at me as i continued to drink.”
I start walking down McNamara’s long hallway, reading each piece. It is exhausting, both physically—for one must stand to read the accounts—and emotionally. I make it to an incident that happened at age 8. Already, the young girl had been the victim of sexual abuse three times. This fourth time, an older boy assaults her with a tube of lipstick. “I remember how much it hurt,” Barnes writes.
Already shaken by Barnes’ descriptions of abuse, name-calling and humiliation that span the first eight years of her life, I feel a wave of blackness come over me. I walk away, numb, and look at the beautiful and vivid mythological pieces on display at Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, just down the hall. I return to Barnes’ diary and make it through two more pieces—the girl is still 8—until I have to walk away again. A fifth instance of sexual abuse involves a Pepsi bottle. “The cap was still on the bottle,” she writes, “so it hurt a great deal.”
Now I walk outside and sit on the curb for a few minutes, staring at the bare tree branches stretching against the cloudy sky. I walk back in and examine a photograph of a tiny to-go box. The text tells of a mother who would come home very drunk several nights a week. Barnes, age 10, would wait, hungry, until she could wait no more. She pieced together dinners for herself out of week-old leftovers.
The gallery’s opposite wall chronicles the teenage years and early adult life, including violent relationships with men and suicide attempts. One photographs shows a Precious Moments-style statuette of an embracing bride and groom. Barnes, age 18, is getting married. “The night before my wedding, my mother decided that she would give me some words of advice,” Barnes writes. “She told me that I should be careful and not screw up this marriage like I screwed up my relationship with my first boyfriend.”
The final piece reveals a trace of hope: 26-year-old Barnes receives her GED. The accompanying photograph shows a smiling woman flanked by her two young children. The text describes feelings of pride, but also tinges of the old childhood humiliation. “My mother still found it necessary to tell me that she didn’t really think that I was capable of getting my diploma.”
I can usually stomach a lot, or at least pretend to stomach a lot. A Visual Autobiography of Abuse and Neglect knocked the wind out of me. These stories, powerful and dark, are ones I cannot forget.