Pittsburgh-Based ‘Deaf Brown American Mom’ Gets Its Biggest Solo Art Show
As of 2016, Fran Ledonio Flaherty had been living in Pittsburgh for 25 years. She had arrived here as a 20-year-old immigrant from the Philippines, attended the University of Pittsburgh, and gone on to raise a family and start a career.
But after the 2016 presidential election, she said, things changed, including spikes in anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks on Asian Americans. And her new art exhibit, “Deaf Brown American Mom,” is “like my visual diary of everything in the last five, six years,” she said.
The exhibition, Flaherty’s largest solo exhibition to date, features over 70 works in numerous media. “It’s about how to survive as a deaf, brown immigrant and mother after the 2016 election,” she said with a laugh. “That’s been my therapy, dealing with it.”
The exhibition opens this week at the SPACE gallery.
Flaherty, who suffers from a degenerative hearing disease, uses a hearing aid. She founded the Digital Arts Studio at Carnegie Mellon University in 2010 and since 2014 has taught art at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
Among her most experienced projects is the Anthology of Maternity, an installation that has been part of the Festival des arts de Trois-Rivières since 2016. It is an art space that also serves as a place to feed babies. Other credits include “#CripRitual,” a current group exhibition on disability culture at Tangled Art+Disability Gallery in Toronto. She is also active with Pittsburgh’s #notwhite collective.
Flaherty’s work in general explores the intersection of racism, disability and motherhood. And she uses everything from traditional media like acrylic paint, photography and video to 3D printers. “I’m a tech junkie,” she said.
Works by “Deaf Brown American Mom” include “Baranggay”, a mural series of laser-cut hexagons with hand-drawn designs inspired by traditional Filipino village designs. (“Baranggay” is Tagalog for “village”.) The play is about “what it means to be an American right now, to be deaf, to be female, to be brown, so it’s kind of like trying to bridge the gap between the past and the present,” she says.
Flaherty lives with her family in Allison Park. Of Filipino-Chinese descent, she often still feels like an outsider in Pittsburgh. (Some people, when they learn of her ancestry, ask her if she knows any other random Filipino they’ve met.) Similarly, her new exhibit references how people with “invisible disabilities” are treated. . A series of his text paintings incorporate comments people have made about his own disability; it reads: “You don’t look deaf.”
Another work is a series of small words made from clear acrylic and scattered around the gallery, with the names of disabilities invisible to the naked eye, including ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘OCD’.
Flaherty wants her exhibit to help fuel a larger conversation.
“The pandemic has really forced us to reevaluate our lives,” Flaherty said. “The work culture changes, the educational culture changes, everything changes. So my thought is… how are we part of this cultural reset? Because we know that culture has become something that is not ideal for us. There is a lot of discrimination, oppression. We have an opportunity to change that culture, or at least redirect it somewhere… and I basically do that with my artwork, hoping that I can be part of that cultural reset, or at least pass on some of my ideas, and I hope it seeps into people.
The exhibit also features a show-within-a-show titled “Lockdown,” which explicitly addresses issues of racial justice, anti-mask and anti-vaccination protests, and the January 6, 2020 insurrection at the United States Capitol.
The opening reception for “Deaf Brown American Mom” will be Friday, March 11 from 6-8 p.m. The event includes a performance by High Priestess Or Nah and a poetry reading by Veronica Corpuz. SPACE is located at 812 Liberty Ave. More information here.