Runyan's photography exhibit focuses on mothers in the South

Release Date: 12/16/2013

Rikki Runyan's senior art exhibit, "God and Her Family: Matriarchy in the American South," was inspired by her study of mothers in the American Southern culture.

Runyan's exhibit of black and white photography was featured in the Walton Fine Arts Center in early December as part of the Senior Art Exhibit Series. Runyan, from McGehee, Ark., is scheduled to graduate in the spring with a degree in art and English.

In the "God and Her Family: Matriarchy in the American South" exhibit, Runyan said her curiosity for the project was sparked "by the vast amount of stereotypes that Southern women face."

Rikki Runyan

Senior art and English major Rikki Runyan's black and white photography exhibit "God and Her Family" Matriarchy in the American South," examines the role and stereotypes of mothers in American Southern culture.

"I spoke with a collection of individuals, asking what they thought of when they heard the term 'Southern mother,' Runyan said. "Descriptors and phrases that came up frequently included: too young, probably uneducated, barefoot and pregnant, and shot-gun-wedding.  Others addressed more broadly the role of Southern women, and the assumption that appeared most predominantly was that women in Southern regions are submissive to a conservative, patriarchal culture.  To investigate this cultural assumption, I met with families, photographed them in moments of their daily lives, and conducted short interviews with the mothers."

Runyan said that when talking to the women, she was "overwhelmed by their determination to continue pursuing their life goals while raising children."
 
"These women are predominantly young mothers, and their pregnancies were typically unplanned, resulting in social detriment," Runyan said. "One young woman was specifically told that 'God would never let [her] into heaven after what [she] had done.' They were told that their lives were over.  This assumption could not be farther from the truth.  Among the women featured in this exhibit, there are a few who have built careers in service industries, but there are also teachers, nurses and one young woman studying to become a pediatrician."

The photography project gave Runyan an entirely new respect for mothers in the South.

"The fathers in these families, if present at all, are typically expected to perform one task: bring home a paycheck," she said. "Conversely, women hold down a job, raise the children, maintain the home and provide meals.  For the wives and mothers, family becomes their entire life; they often lose contact with friends and rarely get even a night to themselves.  Yet, rather than allowing this system to discourage or subjugate them, these women use their position in the family to empower them.  They control the family; they act as governesses to household affairs and the lives of children and husbands.  When these women were asked to comment on the role of women in Southern culture, nearly every answer was the same: God and her family.  In this way, these women have worked within a system which appears to have been designed against them. Yet, the culture they create is undoubtedly matriarchal in nature."

Runyan said she drew inspiration from a talk she had with poet C.D. Wright, who visited campus earlier in the semester as part of the Walton Arts & Ideas Series.

"She told me during her visit to our campus, 'You don't represent people.  Let them represent themselves.' " Runyan said. "If you experience anything inspiring or powerful in these images and interviews, I did not create this presence; I merely captured it."