A collaged image that resembles the Temperance card: an ancient Egyptian figure hurryingly pours one cup of water into another. Underneath their feet, the advertisement for Miss Cleo’s number creeps up; the description for this card reads: “The US Public Health Service began ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in African American Male.’”

Black Life Exploited for White Lies: Ilana Harris-Babou’s Long Con at Jacob Lawrence Gallery

A collaged image that resembles the Temperance card: an ancient Egyptian figure hurryingly pours one cup of water into another. Underneath their feet, the advertisement for Miss Cleo’s number creeps up; the description for this card reads: “The US Public Health Service began ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in African American Male.’”
Ilana Harris-Babou, installation detail, 2020. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

How can satire and collage techniques expose capitalist strategies of using Black bodies to exploit spiritual, mental, and physical health, and to force mystifying consumer relationships? How can satire and collage create new imaginative storylines that explore the emphatic performance of Black iconic, hotep-ish figures, like Miss Cleo and Dr. Sebi, amid such mystifying consumer relationships? These are the questions ruminating in my head as I experienced Ilana Harris-Babou’s Long Con at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in Seattle, WA. Painter, sculptor, multimedia, and performance artist Harris-Babou was commissioned by the Black Embodiments Studio at the University of Washington, an art writing incubator that holds theoretical and technical conversations about the ways Black artists express ideas of Black life. In Long Con, Harris-Babou poses the question: can our ways of consumption lead us to buy expensive “truths” falsely advertised?

Through collage, Harris-Babou doesn’t just superimpose different materials, fabrics, and textures, she extends this technique by interweaving and layering varied voices, personalities, scenes, and histories into one video still, gif, video, or tarot card. Upon entering the gallery, I could hear voices playing from three different video streams in different rooms. The chorus set the tone for a show full of sarcasm, cynicism, and dry humor that mocks consumerism, progressive politics, and popular culture. One voice played from Harris-Babou’s Reparation Hardware (2018), where the main “Reparator,” discusses how she and her team will contribute to Black American reparation efforts by using rugged, slippery materials, and ineffective hammering techniques. Despite the narrator’s claims, the project only produces assemblage sculptures named after Black icons like Malcom X, which disregard the life and demands of the person, ossifying them as voiceless figureheads. Faintly, I could hear a voice demonstrating a DIY Cheeto face mask from Decision Fatigue (2019), which was playing in a small offset cubby room. The loudest voices came from the main gallery, where Dr. Sebi and Miss Cleo spoke their flamboyant gospel over lo-fi hip-hop beats. These icons are known for being outrageously emphatic, but the soft, lulling music had a calming effect on Dr. Sebi’s and Miss Cleo’s message. As I will come to understand, pacifying audiences can be a ploy to dupe people into purchasing spiritual services they think they need to survive.

An installation image of Ilana Harris-Babou's video "Decision Fatigue." In the image, a woman has written DECISION on a mirror in pink lipstick. Her hand is up to the mirror as she starts to write FATIGUE.
Installation view of Decision Fatigue at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Photographer: Jueqian Fang. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery.
Installation view of Long Con at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Photographer: Jueqian Fang. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

I was drawn to the deep purple wall surrounding the wall-mounted videos and still images of Miss Cleo and Dr. Sebi, but I couldn’t resist the draw to the oversized cards that lined the left wall. The cards play off of the aesthetics of tarot cards, with many featuring a person in ancient Egyptian clothes holding or using ancient tools. Along with figures and images popular in tarot illustrations, Harris-Babou’s cards also have collaged images of Dr. Sebi’s and Miss Cleo’s popular ads, hand motions, and the “call me now” slogan. Sometimes the bodily figures are cut out of the card and replaced with the sky, earth, or fire backgrounds.

Each tarot card lists a date and a corresponding event connected to Miss Cleo and Dr. Sebi, as well as health crises largely affecting Black communities. A card dated 1937 references the US involvement with “Eugenics Medical Sterilization Law 116” of Puerto Rico. Another card dated 1985 references Ronald Regan’s acknowledgment of AIDS crises, an acknowledgment that came far too late for a crisis known for being most brutal on Black and Brown queer communities. Harris-Babou references moments where the US neglected, or outright caused, turmoil for Black peoples’ spiritual, mental, and physical health. She juxtaposes these moments with cards that indicate important events of Miss Cleo’s and Dr. Sebi’s lives and career. Immediately following the 1985 card is another card dated 1987 that references Dr. Sebi’s lawsuit for claiming to cure AIDS. The chronological order of the cards offers an alternative storyline to the lives of these two icons and links the performances of Miss Cleo and Dr. Sebi to corporations’ scamming techniques. 

A collaged image that resembles a tarot card. The card describes the birth of Dr. Sebi and resembles the Queen of Cups holding out a cup towards the heavens, but the body of the Queen and the bird is cut out, replaced by the sky, rivers, and earth.
Ilana Harris-Babou, installation detail, 2020. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

The tarot cards reorient my perception of Miss Cleo and Dr. Sebi. The first card in the storyline resembles the Temperance card: an ancient Egyptian figure hurryingly pours one cup of water into another. Underneath their feet, the advertisement for Miss Cleo’s number creeps up; the description for this card reads: “The US Public Health Service began ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in African American Male.’” The next card indicates the birth of Dr. Sebi and resembles the Queen of Cups holding out a cup towards the heavens, but the body of the Queen and the bird is cut out, replaced by the sky, rivers, and earth. This juxtaposition alludes to a narrative that reveals what public health negligence and capitalist consumerism tries to disguise: capitalist systems alchemize and manipulate conditions to create con artists, making Dr. Sebi a figure that takes money by claiming to save people from crises started and perpetuated by the US government. Consumers, at the hands of such capitalist ploys, buy into the narrative believing that the US, corporations, and their use of iconic figures can save their lives when these very entities are destroying lives.  

An installation view of Long Con by Ilana Harris-Babou at Jacob Lawrence Gallery in Seattle, WA. A dark purple wall has one large video screen mounted on it. To the right , there is a long line of small rectangular cards hung on the wall.
Installation view of Long Con at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Photographer: Jueqian Fang. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

I turn to the wall where Harris-Babou brings the figures back to life by distilling clips of their past studio interviews, talks, and ads. The alternative storyline told through tarot cards revealed how Miss Cleo’s exuberant rejoicing and Dr. Sebi’s self-righteous medical knowledge are rhetorical tools that dupe people into buying their products and services. Furthermore, especially in the case of Miss Cleo, the manipulative performance of a fabricated accent and inauthentic attire increases the wealth of white corporations on the backs of Black spiritual culture. Both Dr. Sebi’s and Miss Cleo’s performance becomes a costume created in the service of capitalism via medical health and spirituality.

Ilana Harris-Babou’s Long Con reinforces the ideas that suggest much (if not all) of our material realities are shaped and constructed by white imaginations, and Black people are forced to participate in these realities. The exhibition gave me a chance to reflect on how I’ve mistaken Dr. Sebi’s and Miss Cleo’s performances as just spiritual mumbo jumbo, not understanding the grander devious tactics of corporations and governments lying underneath. Long Con critiques white imagined and dictated consumerism and its relationship to Black spirituality, wellness, and labor, and emphasizes the absurd ways that we, as consumers, participate in these relationships.   

Ilana Harris-Babou: Long Con
Jacob Lawrence Gallery, Seattle, WA
November 19, 2020 – January 16, 2021

This interview is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in cultural critics of color cofounded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Read more about Variable West’s Critical Minded Grant here.