Biracial Americans are often told to choose one racial identity based how they are perceived physically by society. The mixed-raced actress Halle Berry is assumed black, and so is our 44th president, Barack Obama, who has often repeated that he was born to a Kenyan father and a white American mother. Because of slavery, the "one-drop rule," and the subsequent ways race plays out across contemporary culture, black and white Americans alike have fallen into systems used to marginalize, not represent. Photographer Genevieve Gaignard, whose father is black and mother is white, explores the ways modern race shapes identities and realities in a new exhibition, The Powder Room. Gaignard's solo show at Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles, features character-driven self portraits of the artist composed as both black and white women, providing a fascinating look at social and racial constructions that inform gender.
The "powder room" to me is a transformative place in which objects can become altars through routine—mirrors and vanities in particular," Gaignard tells Creators. In the exhibition, the artist hones in on the space of self-construction—one that doesn't necessarily hold up in public—but is often associated with the bathroom as a place where one gets ready before facing the world. She says, "It is my hope that by re-contextualizing hierarchies and repurposing problematic imagery, I can help viewers notice dangerous representations of race in gender in their own day-to-day life."
In works like, Smell the Roses, Gaignard, says she transformed herself into a middled-aged, god-fearing, New Orleans woman. In the photograph, Gaignard is dressed to the nines, church hat and bible in hand. The work set the tone for The Powder Room series, The Line Up. In "The Line Up (White)," the artist wears a black dress and matching small black hat that recalls the milliner Philip Treacy's creations for the British royal family. She is presumably channeling another middle-aged woman and the hat casts a shadow over her face. It's hard to tell if the woman is black or white, but the signified—religious style, hat, hair, politics of mourning—suggests the character is black. It's campy and complicated. To arrive at the conclusion that Gaignard is playing a black woman, the viewer would have to stereotype the character, something that, because of racial conditioning, they are likely to do.
"In 'People in Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones,' from the I Am Not Your Mammy series, I've tried to give racist representations of black women a new purpose, elevating them through new contexts," explains Gaignard. The artist also explores cultural appropriation in mixed-media collage work titled, W.W.I.D. "I work with found tchotchkes and ephemera throughout my practice, and I've always been frustrated by the racist images that permeate black Americana. Most figurines of black women reflect either servitude or exoticism. I've taken these figurines, mammy saltshakers, and 'African' tribal dancers, and put their heads atop of white female figurines that have been afforded the luxury of beautiful ball gowns and dignity."
"Neighborhood Watch" is a photo of a woman looking out the window of a house in the suburbs with the artist reinventing herself as a blonde white woman wearing red lipstick. It's an image that offers, on a surface level, physical identifiers that racialize the character. But historical precedents suggest the woman is white: very few black families, because of racist redlining policies and the federal government's housing discrimination laws, were allowed to move to suburbs during the mid-century.
In other photographs, like "Hidden Fences," the artist mixes black and white characteristics, further complicating the racial politics of her images. The title of the work is taken from Jenna Bush Hager's red carpet gaffe at last year's Golden Globes, where she conflated the titles of Hidden Figures and Fences, two films about black lives. The public read into the former First Daughter's mistake: she couldn't tell black movies with two drastically different plots apart, which is to suggest that she thinks all black people are the same. Gaignard's image evokes a similar energy.
In using her body to play characters to perform gender and race as a way to deconstruct stereotypes and hierarchies, Gaignard works in a tradition established by photographers like Carrie Mae Weems and Cindy Sherman. Because Gaignard is a fair-skinned mixed-race woman, the artist's own body and characters it produces challenge racial and gender assumptions and stereotypes in uneven and profound ways.
"Like with all of my work, I want to reflect the viewers back at themselves," says the photographer. "I want them to navigate through the world of my characters to discover things about the way they process visual cues, to expose what they project onto my characters, and, essentially, to catch them in the act of doing so."
"By putting the camera on myself," she explains, "I hope to point to the absurdity of so many of our deeply held beliefs about personhood and how certain identities should manifest."