Playing Dress-Up, Playing With Racial Perceptions

Genevieve Gaignard uses herself as the canvas to explore race and femininity.

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The women in Genevieve Gaignard's photographs are hoodrats who wear large hoop earrings and sport long, auburn-colored, box braids. They are vampy divas who wear turbans, silk robes, blue eyeshadow, and a rock a killer red lip. They are suburban housewives dressed in pastel floral blouses and mom jeans on their way to pick up groceries. They are black women and they are white women, but they are all Genevieve Gaignard. The Los Angeles–based, Yale-educated photographer and installation artist dissects her biracial identity through her character-created portraits. American women of different ages, social classes, and income brackets are presented to the viewer, but you have to pay close attention to what you are seeing. Gaignard plays with racial binaries both cleverly and carefully, and her environmental photographs are filled with comic relief, glamour, and irony. Her installations, brimming with an abundance of pop-culture references like Cabbage Patch dolls, vintage photo frames, and other chintzy ephemera sourced from thrift shops and consignment boutiques, provide a bridge for the viewer to enter her world.

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Born in the early '80s to a white mother from Baltimore and a black father from New Orleans, Gaignard was raised in Orange, Massachusetts, a rural town with a population of 8,000 that's almost exclusively white. Her mother would tell her stories of her youth in Baltimore, where she had lived upstairs from Edith Massey, one of John Waters's kooky muses, who appeared in five of his films. Gaignard's mother would recount tales of going to Waters's screenings and hanging out with Massey in her thrift shop, with all kinds of colorful characters popping in. Waters's references run fluidly in Gaignard photographs; you can see it in the beehive hairstyles, pin-up-style dresses, garish makeup, and that fabulous drag-queen aesthetic.

Gaignard is currently riding a momentous wave that has included two solo shows with the Los Angeles gallery Shulamit Nazarian; her recent first solo museum exhibit, Smell the Roses; and a group show at the California African American Museum. Next up is her inclusion in Prospect.4, New Orleans's top art biennial, and an upcoming solo exhibit, In Passing, at the Houston Center for Photography in early September. On a summer afternoon in mid-July, Gaignard and I talked on the phone about black pop culture, finding inspiration from everyday life, and her rock-star art career.

Jasmin Hernandez: There is this really strong thread of wigs, drag-queen culture, exaggerated beauty, and performance that plays out in your work. How did you put all these elements together?

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Genevieve Gaignard: I think it's a mix of several things: me feeling like I didn't fit in, and not fitting the ideal of what beauty is, in terms of my racial identity. At one point, I was just like, I'm going to embrace this and play off those things in the work. It's popular culture, all of these things, what everyone is looking at. I'm just taking my stab at it, and hopefully people can relate or connect to it.

JH: Your installations are always so richly detailed, packed with nostalgia and witty innuendos. How do they add to the story line you're telling in the portraits?

GG: With the installations, I'm able to inform the viewer of the more personal story and about the person who makes these characters. So you're seeing things that I surround myself with in my own home, or things that I grew up with. Then my sense of humor or my wit is in there to pull you in, because you're excited or you feel comfortable in the space, because it feels familiar. Then there are these clues to something else, like a bigger message, or just more questions to ask yourself as you're experiencing the installation.

JH: In the series "The Line-Up," you portray black women in church showcasing several moods: vanity, mourning, optimism, etc. Can you tell me more about that?

GG: I actually just wanted to have something that was a nod to church culture, or black church culture. The fact that you're saying that you see all those different things, I don't know if I was actually trying to say a specific thing in each one. I'm in that character, and I'm in the moment. But when they all came together, it was this nice experience to walk past them all as if they're all standing in line or they're at different events.

JH: How does black pop culture shape your work? Names like "Hidden Fences," Get Out, and The Color Purple all appear as titles of your works.

GG: I think I use that as an extra layer to hit the viewer. They experience the photograph and then they read the title and they have a new way of thinking about it. And often I think I'm read as white, so I'm thinking they are seeing the white characters, and then I'll use these titles to inform them that there is more to the story.

JH: So now, after two gallery exhibits and a museum show at CAAM, do you think your characters have evolved somehow?

GG: When I got the show at CAAM, I was able to really address the audience. I knew my audience was mostly from the black community, and that was a really amazing moment to have. With my second show at Shulamit Nazarian, I've kind of gotten this platform to speak about the complexities of a range of black identities, and I don't want to cancel that out. In my mind, I was saying, How can I talk about blackness through these seemingly white characters?

JH: You're included in the artist line-up for the upcoming Prospect 4, a major biennial in New Orleans. You have family ties in New Orleans; can you talk about the significance of showing work there?

GG: It's really huge and incredible. I actually haven't spent a lot of time there. I went a handful of times to visit relatives as I was growing up. I've been yearning to have more of a connection to that place. My plan is to photograph all of the characters in New Orleans. So I've been going to the neighborhood where my dad grew up, where he went to school, where he went to church. Just really getting a sense of the place. I also went to the Whitney Plantation Museum, which I found out is the only plantation that honors and tells the stories of slaves. Where other plantations will refer to slaves as "workers" and don't acknowledge the severity of things that happened there, the Whitney Plantation Museum does. They have monuments with the slaves' names to honor them.

JH: Besides pulling from your personal life, how else do you research your characters?  

GG: I do a lot of people-watching; I spend a lot of time driving around Los Angeles. I feel that's when I'm really experiencing a mix of types, so just pulling from that. I just recently did a shoot, and I saw this girl walking down the street in her Adidas flip-flops with socks up to her shins and eating a bowl of cereal. I was like, I want to try and re-create that.

JH: So basically just observations from everyday life.

GG: Yes, that and watching TV, which is pop culture.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Jasmin Hernandez is the founder of Gallery Gurls, a feminist-focused art blog, and a freelance arts writer for Cultured, Vice, and Elle, among others. She is a native New Yorker and a graduate of Parsons School of Design.

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