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Regional Interests

Lullabies Transmit Intimate and Difficult Knowledge in ‘Sounds Like Home’

If you’re a parent, it’s likely you’ve spent many dark morning hours trying to comfort a fussy child with combinations of food, cuddles and maybe a lullaby. Perhaps you sang Hush Little Baby or You Are My Sunshine, English counterparts to global cradle songs, all of which transmit generational knowledge and experience. Sounds Like Home: Longing and Comfort Through Lullabies, on view at SOMArts through Aug. 22, takes up this humble yet powerful folkloric form as a space for both intimacy and social awareness.

Sounds Like Home stems from curators and twin sisters Duygu and Bengü Gün, their love of music, and their shared experiences of family migration. Though the sisters are split between San Francisco and Istanbul, they and the rest of the 2019–20 SOMArts Curatorial Residency cohort pivoted to Zoom meetings with Curatorial Residency and Partnership Director Carolina Quintanilla and SOMArts staff while the building was shuttered due to COVID-19. By email, Quintanilla notes that the organization’s tech team took the lead in producing virtual exhibitions, which were so successful that all future SOMArts installations will include virtual components to extend the reach and impact of the organization’s programming.

Installation view of ‘Sounds Like Home’ at SOMArts. (Richard Lomibao)

In person, discrete installations throughout the gallery deftly capture Sounds Like Home’s primary themes. Duygu Gün’s In the Shade (2021), a trio of backlit drums adorned with minimalist drawings, address lullabies as age-old cautionary tales. A mother weeping for a stolen child and Red Riding Hood’s anti-hero wolf leering over a crib mirror our fear of and fascination with nature, and the danger of defying accepted social norms.

Further along the gallery’s curving north wall, projects by Rashin Fahandej and Zsudayka Nzinga Terrell take up parenting matters that aren’t directly addressed in the traditional lullaby catalog, and therefore warrant attention. Installed in the media space, Fahandej’s A Father’s Lullaby (2019) highlights how a racist legal system affects men raising children. An ongoing project comprising immersive installations, community workshops, and a participatory audio website, A Father’s Lullaby helps formerly incarcerated men to connect with and comfort their children through song, powerfully interrupting the problematic myth of absent Black fathers.

Installation view of Rashin Fahandej’s ‘A Father’s Lullaby,’ 2019. (Richard Lomibao)

Terrell’s mixed-media pieces form a sort of celebratory triptych about Black motherhood and the potency of the parent-child bond. Breastfeeding #2 (2019) references Byzantine icons through front-facing figures and vibrant halos that frame both a mother and child’s heads. This depiction of Black motherhood expertly adopts visual tropes previously used to portray only white femininity, fertility and religious devotion. Nodding to contemporary social concerns, Terrell emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding, and the not-so-subtle gaps in maternal and newborn care that break along racial lines.

Gracing the east wall, Hannah Reyes Morales’ Living Lullabies explores nighttime rituals among families facing grave crises; toxic air pollution in Mongolia, Syria’s unrelenting civil war, and frontline workers isolating themselves from their children at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Morales’ subjects embody a universal parental experience as they gently coax an active child toward sleep, marshaling patience when exhaustion and uncertainty rule. Lullabies, like parenting, defy the specifics of language, religion, nationality, and political loyalties. Living Lullabies introduces minor yet crucial visual grace notes to a media narrative that either ignores or disparages families of color facing crises worldwide.

Zsudayka Nzinga Terrell, ‘Me and My Baby,’ 2019; ‘Bedtime Prayers,’ 2020; and ‘Breastfeeding #2,’ 2019. (Richard Lomibao)

Anchoring the gallery’s southern wall, Nooshin Hakim’s One Hundred Lullabies frames cradle songs as a form of mutual aid. Initiated in 2015 in response to ongoing ISIS terrorist attacks throughout the Middle East and Europe, the crowd-sourced project collects lullabies—installed as music box script hung on a stark black wall—from children and adults who have faced conflict’s collateral barbarity. Each collected lullaby was given to only one child who was displaced by war, creating an intimate, one-to-one exchange akin to writing a letter or sending a care package.

Originally presented in galleries and museums, the online iteration of Hakim’s project does double duty as a community art project and experiential archive, and demonstrates how virtual platforms may be used to aggregate and transmit generational knowledge. In a striking visual note, the scripts, gently fluttering against the black background, resemble a deconstructed ISIS flag, its menacing threat metaphorically neutralized. To the right of Hakim’s installation, Iris Ergül’s Old She-Hyena (2015) takes up some of the dualistic social constructions—body/soul, male/female, nature/culture—that weave through and render lullabies so potent. Considered together, Hakim and Ergül’s projects portray lullabies as virtual and material cultural forms.

Ä°ris Ergül, ‘Old She-Hyena,’ 2015. (Richard Lomibao)

Sounds Like Home addresses serious subjects that may, at first, seem incongruous with the delicate act of putting a baby to sleep. We should remember, though, that the lyrics of many traditional cradle songs read on paper like murder ballads. Writing on the subject for PBS, Jenny Marder notes that parents may, when there’s no one else awake to hear it, reckon with fears and anxieties through familiar songs, all while relishing the parent-child bond. Passed down through millennia, lullabies forge intimacy, cultural continuity and, as ethnomusicologist Andrew Pettit tells Marder, “a place to say the unsayable.” Sounds Like Home marshals a diverse range of conceptual and material interpretations of lullabies, elevating and honoring a modest knowledge base to which we may all relate.

‘Sounds Like Home: Longing and Comfort Through Lullabies’ is on view at SOMArts Cultural Center through Aug. 22. Details here.

Copyright 2021 KQED