by Megan Sparks
Intersectionality and inclusion are trending topics in the art world. Genevieve Gaignard takes on the subject of intersectionality in her photography, mixed media, and installations, seeking to, as she describes in her artist statement, “challenge viewers to navigate the powers and anxieties of intersectional identity.” Born near a mill town in Massachusetts, Gaignard is a bi-racial woman, daughter of a black father and white mother. Her work investigates her own inner racial anxiety and explores how we negotiate the narrow confines of identity imposed by mainstream culture. Gaignard was named an Emerging Artist to Watch by Artsy Magazine in 2016, and in September of 2017 she mounted her first solo exhibition in Houston, In Passing, at the Houston Center for Photography.
Passing is a centuries-old phenomenon in the United States, and was occurring fairly regularly by the late 20th century era of Jim Crow. Black people who were fair-skinned enough passed as whites “deliberately or not, permanently, or as a temporary convenience” as scholar Robert Fikes, Jr. describes in his article The Passing of Passing. Blacks who were able to convince others they were white often could often bypass some of the injury and effects of systematic oppression of America’s racist society.
Gaignard states in her interview with spot magazine, “Passing has always been a survival strategy, it’s not about assimilation or conformity. In my daily life, passing is less of something that I seek out and more of something that’s given to me.” One may choose to pass for any number of reasons; black people are not a monolith. However, Gaignard’s claims that passing is not about assimilation or conformity are contradictory. She both underscores and overlooks the privilege created by the greater historical, societal framework informing racial perceptions and interactions in this country’s past and present.
The photographs comprising In Passing convey tension around the outward presentation of black identity. The “personas” in her images wear costumes calling upon black stereotypes. These images are unsettling, at times invoking Rachel Dolezal-esque blackface, particularly Supreme, 2015, in which Gaignard wears door knocker earrings, a nameplate necklace and a shirt bearing the phrase Hoodrat Thangs—items that have been mocked, appropriated, and commercialized by the dominant capitalist white culture.
Gaignard can explore how she presents her blackness to the world, but ultimately, she can appear to discard her “black costume” and navigate white spaces with more ease and privilege than non-passing black people. Even in the curatorial statement for In Passing there is problematic subtext:
“Interwoven throughout the photographs are installations of everyday objects that confront viewers with some of the historical ways in which black female identity has been prescribed—as a mammy, a pin-up, or a ghetto girl. The malleability of the artist’s own physicality points to the nature of race and gender itself—something that can be put on and inhabited, a shifting collection of social constructs.” (Gaignard, curatorial statement, In Passing, Houston Center for Photography, September 2017)
Even though race is an arbitrary social construct, people of color cannot “put on and inhabit” their race unless they possess the privilege of being white-passing. Otherwise, the idea that whiteness (or any race) can be “put on and inhabited” is extremely disquieting. In Passing could be an uncomfortable experience for black viewers (*raises hand*)—Gaignard’s presentation of blackness could be perceived as derivative, or counterproductive to the conversation around black identity in America. Her work could also fuel harmful views around stereotypes and negative connotations associated with blackness.
As previously stated, black people are not a monolith, and one might say I, as a black woman who could never pass, am projecting my experience onto Gaignard’s work. I can strive to be a “good negro,” code-switching and adhering to the rules set by respectability politics, but, in the end, I will always be a black body existing and navigating white spaces, especially when I engage with the art world. For me there will never be, as described in Gaignard’s curatorial statement, “a future in which [I] can be multitudes: both black and white…and…have access to the same agency.”
In the current political climate, Gaignard’s exhibition is a conversation-starter on matters of race, class, and gender, but I believe she ultimately misinterprets Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original definition of and intent behind the word intersectionality. In spite of its questionable politics, In Passing is visually and aesthetically appealing and resonates with a distinct vision. I’m excited to see how Genevieve Gaignard evolves as an artist. Hopefully she will more thoroughly evaluate the deeper implications in her work and explore the historical and social contexts of intersectionality for future exhibitions.
http://www.genevievegaignard.com/about (artist statement)
http://www.hcponline.org/exhibits/exhibitions/view/131/in-passing (curatorial statement)
https://www.hcponline.org/events/calendar/special-events/1441/what-is-intersectionality-discussing-the-in-between-in-genevieve-gaignards-in-passing (Nelson Chan interviewed Genevieve for Spot)
Megan Sparks is a social practice artist, poet, art critic and art administrator based in Houston, TX. She is the founder and facilitator of The Resistance Healing Clinic (RHC), a series of public programs responding to how self-care is excluded from the conversation of resistance.