MFA Alum Brianna L. Hernández Explores Intersection of Art, Death, and Grief in Hyperallergic Curatorial Fellowship

Posted June 25, 2024 in Alumni, MFA

As Brianna L. Hernández grieved the loss of her mother, she understood she was not alone in the experience and her thoughts turned to helping others.

Her work to share the experience has earned recognition. Hernández, a 2016 graduate of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, was one of five people selected for the prestigious 2024 Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, sponsored by Hyperallergic, a leading voice in contemporary perspectives on art and culture.

headshot of a woman with curly black hair wearing heart shaped earings, a silver necklace, and a floral patterened tank top smiling gently into the cameraBrianna L. Hernández

Every year, the fellowship offers five curators $5,000 to support their research while developing their journalistic skills. Hernández, who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at KCAD, produced a trio of articles and an online exhibition focusing on grief and end-of-life care, two subjects that have become central to her own work since serving as her mother’s caregiver in the final year of her life. That experience profoundly shifted her work toward a focus on death, and the living who are left behind to cope with loss.

“As she was dying and right after she died, I knew I needed to make work about it for my own healing, but I also knew that my situation was not unique,” Hernández said. “I felt like it was of both artistic and social importance to put that out there in a way that hasn’t been addressed.”

Death remains a taboo subject, and no one feels that more acutely than those grieving a loved one’s passing.

“A lot of grievers feel like there's a time limit on what they're going through,” Hernández said. “For me, it was a way to honor my own experience and to let other people who share that know they’re not alone—there's more to this experience than what the Hallmark cards say.”

a photograph of an unseen woman lying in a bed in a room filled with flowers"Esperate" from the "Anticipatory|Después" series by Brianna L. Hernández

As an artist, Hernández is guided by socially engaged practices. Her studio work centers on multi-media installations that explore end-of-life care, grief, and mourning rituals based on lived experience, cultural research, and collaborations with peers including death education workshops.

She also prioritizes leadership and community building outside of the studio to foster opportunity and exposure for others. She is director of curation and board secretary of Ma’s House & BIPOC Art Studio on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, N.Y., as well as assistant curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, M.Y., the board treasurer at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, Wis., and a committee member for the Milwaukee-based Gente Chicana/SOYmos Chicanos Arts Fund.

The Hyperallergic fellowship offered Hernández the chance to share her creative practice through writing, and in a much deeper way than is usually possible in a gallery exhibition.
“With a typical exhibition, you have the work and some small labels. In this case, the writing was the primary part, so the research and thinking were highlighted,” she said.

A photograph showing the back of a woman sitting on the edge of a bed wearing a purple cotton robe. The room is dimly lit and there is a ghostly figure looming in the doorway. "Hallucination" from the "Anticipatory|Después" series by Brianna L. Hernández

Hernández’s first article for the fellowship, “The Living Legacy of Funerary Arts,” discusses how works such as shrouds, tombs, death masks, and funeral ceremonies preserve key cultural values and knowledge keeping, while reminding the makers of our humanity by caring for the dead. In addition to art, she illustrates how survivors can use songs, dances, and other rituals to help define their new relationship to the dead in ways that capture the loved one’s personality and honor their wishes.

In “The Importance of Art in a ‘Good Death,’” Hernández examines the role of artists and death doulas in helping people who are dying shape the experience into something that aligns with their values.
To explore this idea, she interviews three other creators who combine those practices about their experiences in the field. She also offers resources for others interested in learning more about death practices.

Finally, in “How Artists Reimagine Our Relationship with Death,” she highlights the work of seven contemporary artists reclaiming end-of-life traditions, including ephemeral installations made to wear away with time and her own floral sculptures replacing grey stone markers with vibrant living flowers, showing multiple ways that people can heal their relationships with death.

A small rectangular planter box filled with ornamental grasses sits in the middle of gallery space
(above and below): works from the "Aqui Descansamos" series by Brianna L. Hernández

A coffin made out of moss and other natural materials

In addition to influencing her art, Hernández’s personal experiences navigating loss also led her to a side career as a death doula. Just as a birth doula acts as a calm, guiding force during childbirth, a death doula provides companionship, comfort, and guidance to those facing a terminal illness or death, as well as the loved ones by their side.

As an extension of this work, Hernández also offers themed workshops for people to creatively express their grief or imagine their own end-of-life wishes.

“I’m not just bringing up a bunch of big emotions for people. I like to pair that with different educational resources so that people have something to take away and continue processing,” she explained. “I view it as an opportune entry point into a larger discussion of death through art. There's no right way, there's no wrong way. It's just it's very unique to what your relationship with someone was, and that’s all perfectly valid.”

Additional information about Brianna L. Hernández’s work and death doula training practices is available at briannalhb.com.

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