I was already suspicious when I arrived at Strange Fruit, Genevieve Gaignard’s exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles. We don’t really talk about mixed heritage and colorism enough, but even with that sensitivity in mind, apprehension clouded the experience. This is the kind of show you have to intentionally make time to process. So I was stressed about how to approach the artist interview. A week later, I awkwardly stumbled over the question: How does the need to prove or fit into Blackness inform any part of your art?
Generous and engaging throughout our conversation, Gaignard answered my first question, saying: “I remember giving a talk one time and this gentleman asked, ‘why are you always talking about Blackness in the world?’ And I said, ‘because you can see my whiteness.’ So I guess I don’t think of it as proving myself, per se, but owning both sides of my story.”
Part of Gaignard’s owning is to physically step into the work. Her self-portraits are unique, risky, and to me the most accessible piece of her multi-medium practice. In Strange Fruit, Gaignard poses as a refined southern belle daintily gliding through each scene donning delicate gloves, ribbons, bouffants, and floral prints.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘fully’ owning my whiteness,” she explained, “but thinking about the Royal Doulton figurines as these kinds of ‘ideal’ depictions of white women or whiteness. And so I was positioning myself in that image as a way to own the white side of my story. It links to your colorism questions or concerns—to have the photographs function as the image before their fate which is the heads on the pedestals. I’m thinking, cautiously, how do we affect change? And how do I as a person with skin privilege, with light skin, communicate to shift the mindset of other white folks? How will this help to flip whiteness in the act of what they did, you know?”
The portraits evoked representations from dominant culture that make me feel afraid and angry. They transport me somewhere between the late 1800s and the early 1900s in the South. Or to some dreamy, sensationalized version of that time. To the feeling of watching your ancestor’s trauma on-screen and remembering to breathe. The image of a light brown, slightly muddied, sweat and blood-stained fabric. Gaignard’s portraits materialize into a hallway of figurines—except this time they’re bodiless. Their white heads lay on red pillows atop floral printed platforms. Gaignard also commissioned a version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and changed the lyrics from “Black bodies” to “white bodies.” Gaignard shared an anecdote about the song’s performance: “The cellist for our rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ said that the part he composed felt, for him, like a proper lay to rest moment for the ancestors. Hearing that from him and then listening to the song again hit differently. This song was another world-building subtlety of the show, playing nearby the portraits.
I wish you could have seen it when no one was in the space. In a way, the sound kind of absorbed into the heads. And with the gum ball machines and the crates, I wanted you to think about how consumable these acts of violence are. How it goes in one ear and out the other. It was like a simple gesture of like the ribbon on the neck which I’m wearing in the photographs where I’m embodying the Royal Doulton figurines, too. That link was direct.
I made a very specific choice to not show visuals of Black people suffering or of lynchings in general. It’s easy to try to keep putting out these visual cues that we’ve become numb to in a way. Pushing myself to get at the meat of this, the heart of this, meant using all these things that are very feminine, dainty, beautiful—then shattering your preconceived notion of what those materials are supposed to represent.
[During the opening], white women were coming up to me and saying ‘such beautiful work’ and I’m thinking: this is going to take a while. You’re going to have to come back, or read the press release. I’m open to having the conversations, but a lot of people came up to me and asked ‘how do you feel now that the work is done?’—but ‘the work isn’t done. It just started.’ It took a lot out of me to create, but the real work starts once it’s out in the world for feedback and dialogue. I think the give back is the space to have conversations. Using the work as a stepping stone or something, you know?”
My discomfort with this part of Strange Fruit comes from injecting whiteness into a part of history that is not theirs, and that it seemed to function as a teaching moment. Even in reversal, the reality of Black history is still being evoked. It’s a part of history that many people work to protect as we journey toward collective healing. It felt as if whiteness had been centered.
There is another side to Strange Fruit—a celebration. It is more intimate and at home. Some installations are made up of found antique figurines, household items, and plaques of the same style as Gaignard’s self-portraits. However, they‘ve been replaced with Black faces.
“The figurines in the clock, the bird cages, and the one on the shelf are actually created from two different pieces. I use the salt and pepper shakers and these Royal Doulton figurines. The heads are removed from each figure. The head of the mammy goes on the body of the Doulton dress. Then it’s seamlessly put back together and repainted. The holes are left in the salt and pepper shaker heads to let the viewer know that those were part of her story, but bringing her beyond that, bringing her out of that position of servitude. What remains from creating these reimagined figures are the headless salt and pepper shakers and the head of the Royal Doulton. So those were really the materials I wanted to explore to get at this concept of role reversal.
It’s the opposite of what I’m doing with the [hallway of white] heads. It’s like we [Black people] don’t get to see ourselves depicted in this regal way. But the diptych collages do that. The family tree wall is a space of honoring the reality of our world and all that we have suffered at the hands of white people and white supremacy.”
In the reverent part of Strange Fruit, Gaignard uses role reversal to honor the beauty of Black ancestry and history. The themes are seamless. At the same time, it wasn’t fulfilling for me to see Black people painted into what was a white definition of grandeur, or to see flowers sprouting from their headless bodies. To see the mammy’s head balanced on top of a thin white body repainted brown. What does Black beauty look like without any response to whiteness or the ways in which it was excluded?
In Gaignard’s boldest piece from Strange Fruit, The American Dream is a Pyramid Scheme (2022), the mammy is a central figure. She stands like an army in the shape of a pyramid atop a platform wrapped in floral paper and lace doilies.
Telling me about the process of this piece, Gaignard admitted, “I didn’t really know what I was trying to create when I first had this idea to have 100 of those headless small figurines made, but when I saw them all lined up, they just felt really empowered somehow. I’m not unaware that someone could see this move as a beheading of sorts and that would be in line with act of lynching. But that’s not where my mind went. I felt like removing her head disrupted the visual representation of Blackness that white people put out in the world. [The mammy] was a glorification of what it is to be a Black woman, a servant. This was our representation of Blackness. So I felt like disrupting the figurine in this way gave her a strength. This pyramid guards the space following that hallway of white heads, you’re brought into this more celebratory space.”
Removing the head—the face, ear, eyes, mouth, the throat—because it represents what white people have put on us, still feels like centering whiteness; but this time it cuts into the Black body. In my opinion, the headless mammies look strong, not empowered. This argument isn’t in defense of the mammy as a caricature of Black people, but for asking questions about the impact of using those headless figures, Black women, to guard the threshold into a celebratory space.
I appreciate Gaignard’s work and her willingness to talk about it. Her training and her artistic ability are clear. She put together a masterful installation and packed it with intention. This show also made me uncomfortable, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Art wouldn’t be art if it were always easy on the palette. Sometimes sitting with race is emotional. It’s tempting to gloss over the questions that inform the images we see ourselves represented in or how we feel when we consume them—but Gaignard is making participatory art. All of the turns and subtleties in this show are begging to be discussed. Strange Fruit is not for easy viewing. It is meant to stir and disrupt.
Genevieve Gaignard: Strange Fruit
Vielmetter Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
March 19 – May 7
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