The Bi-Racial Artist Using White-Passing Characters to Talk About Blackness

Genevieve Gaignard uses American stereotypes and comfortable settings to confront uncomfortable issues surrounding race and identity.

Drive-By, Side-Eye, 2016 © Genevieve Gaignard, courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles

American artist Genevieve Gaignard is a homebody. Not in the sense that she’s confined to the couch every Friday night, but rather that she’s infatuated with domestic spaces. “I’ve always had this fascination with what people surround themselves with in their homes,” she tells SLEEK. It’s a theme that’s been a constant in her work since she threw in the towel at cookery school and headed down a fine art path. From the panoramic interiors she lensed for her Yale application, to the carefully curated domestic installations that made up her solo show, Smell the Roses, at the Californian African American Museum earlier this year, to the household-centric creations currently on display at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London — home is where Gaignard’s heart is.

Though she’s what you’d call a multidisciplinary artist, it’s Gaignard’s photography that’s earned her such widespread attention. Known for turning the lens on herself, Gaignard’s Cindy Sherman-esque self-portraits occupy a complex realm where class, race and gender intersect, seeing the artist assume caricatured roles that toy with her own bi-racial identity and the way that blackness and whiteness is perceived. And the home, more often than not, provides the comfortable backdrop for Gaignard’s more uncomfortable subject matter.

Neighborhood Watch, 2017 © Genevieve Gaignard, courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles

Born in Massachusetts to a black father and a white mother, Gaignard is white passing, despite identifying as black, and her visually ambiguous identity is something that’s troubled her since childhood. “When I say I’m passing, I mean we navigate through the world how others see us, and I’m usually seen as white,” Gaignard explains. It’s complicated to reconcile with an appearance that conflicts with your identity, but art has been Gaignard’s outlet through which to come to terms with, explore and push the limitations of identity and its perception. “Over time I’ve been able to process and tap into all the things I thought as a young girl growing up in this body, and this mind,” she says. “It’s about owning the skin I’m in, and thinking about how I can speak about blackness through seemingly white characters.”

In one image, entitled Star-Crossed Color Lines, Gaignard poses with a presumed lover, her fair skin positioned in stark contrast to his dark complexion. She looks over her shoulder to make direct eye contact with the viewer, while he looks away, as if to confront premature judgement. In her solo compositions Gaignard shape-shifts into different female characters — from glammed-up LA-style housewives to dreadlocked “hoodrats” to the busybody neighbour next door. “I spend a lot of time people-watching so I’m always cataloguing looks and ideas of who I might create next,” she explains. And with each character she takes on, Gaignard taps into a new mindset, one that sees her playfully exploring the misconceptions of femininity and racial identity and embodying different personas with campness and conviction.

But despite her confident exterior, Gaignard finds the initial process of getting into character more traumatic than empowering. “It’s kind of the opposite of my favourite thing to do,” she admits. “It actually feels quite stressful and a little nerve wracking.” Masquerading as another character is a disconcerting prospect. “I feel like I already navigate through a world where people don’t quite see me for who I am,” she explains, “and so I’m then putting another layer of that on, and then it just becomes even more confusing.” But the challenge is all part of it. “My goal is to reach a moment where I feel confident, or am embodying the person in front of the camera.”

The Color Purple, 2016 © Genevieve Gaignard, courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles

Often exhibiting her photographs within the context of domestic space — dollhouse-esque rooms plastered with garish patterned wallpaper and furnished with shaggy pile rugs and kitschy trinkets — Gaignard forges a sense of comfort and temptation in which to confront more pertinent questions within her compositions. “I’m never pulling too far from that feeling of home,” she explains, “and this idea of bringing the viewer in because it feels familiar, it feels comfortable — it’s a little bit of trickery, enticing the viewer with this seemingly lighthearted thing and then making them consider how they think about race, and how they make judgements.”

Harking back to this enduring thematic concept, Gaignard’s most recent work departs from the photographic in favour of installation. The two new pieces conceived for the Yinka Shonibare-curated Talisman in the Age of Difference at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery address questions of identity and perception through the recontextualisation of mammy figurines — a woefully outdated archetype of feminine blackness in America — with classic Victorian dolls. “The mammy figurines are such a disrespectful image of how blackness was portrayed in America,” Gaignard explains, “so I collect these two items and remove the heads from both. The mammy head is then put on the body of the doll in the dress, which is then seamlessly put together and repainted, and now is having this new moment where she can just be this whimsical, free creature and not this stereotype of blackness.” The new dolls are then exhibited among household items: one sits on a grandfather clock shelving unit, filled with books that speak about blackness in America, the other assumes the role of a bird — beautiful, but caged, and at the mercy of its owner. The exhibition’s unifying question is “can unconventional beauty be a form of resistance?” For Gaignard, it’s a resounding yes.  

(L) Genevieve Gaignard
Rise and Shine (Her Moment in Time), 2018
Grandfather clock, custom hand painted porcelain figurine, found objects, vintage books, doilies
185.4 x 51.2 x 25cm
(73 x 20 1/8 x 9 7/8in), (R) She Was Afraid of Heights, But She Was Much More Afraid of Never Flying, 2018
Birdcage with stand, custom hand painted porcelain figurine, skeleton key, feather, doily
163 x 45 x 26cm
(64 1/8 x 17 3/4 x 10 1/4in)
Courtesy of Shulamit Nazarian and the Artist
Photos: Stephen White

Talisman in the Age of Difference is currently on display at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and runs until 21 July. 

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