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.
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?