Frida Kahlo once said that she painted herself because she often found herself alone — and because she knew herself better than she knew anyone else.
Once photography became recognized as a fine art, self-portraiture was even easier. Now, with our forward-facing cameras and Snapchat filters, we know our faces pretty well. But what do all the shots in our camera roll — and the one “perfect” selfie we choose to share on social media — actually say about our personalities? Do we know ourselves better, or have we gotten further from actually, thoroughly exploring our identity?
Genevieve Gaignard tackles the complexity of identity in her show “Smell the Roses” at the California African American Museum. Gaignard deals especially with issues of race; the daughter of a black father and white mother, the artist often struggled against a feeling of invisibility. Her photographs feel intimate and personal even while they depict figures that could live in almost any urban space.
“My earlier work focused on other people, but at some point in order to say what I need to as an artist, I realized I had to turn the camera on myself,” said Gaignard via email.
Because her work explores themes of identity, the context of where her work is displayed plays an important part in the presentation of her work. “Smell the Roses” marks Gaignard’s first museum show in Los Angeles and she feels especially grateful to work with CAAM.
“Being invited to present my work in this space and context means a lot to me,” says Gaignard. “It shows that CAAM is invested in multiple aspects of what it means to be African American, and that's really powerful.”
Gaignard follows in the footsteps of iconic Black and African-American artists working with photography such as Carrie Mae Weems and Renée Cox. Both worked with themes of self-portraiture and the place of the Black/African-American female body within society and art history at large. This was before the era of the selfie — the digital age in which it takes only a few seconds to take a photo of yourself and upload it to your social media channel of choice. The artist addresses the fact that she functions within this rapid-upload culture. This process affects the way we take photos and share photos, something Gaignard acknowledges.
“Outside of my photography practice I am part of the selfie generation, and when you take a selfie you're looking for that shot that looks amazing,” says Gaignard. “In these characters I'm looking for something different, something more interesting. Like selfies, my photos are performative. And yes, sometimes I do want to look amazing. But even that is a performance.”
Gaignard strives to share those photos “where the performance breaks down a bit.” While artists like Cindy Sherman might come to mind when viewing her work, Sherman’s work often feels cinematic (and she often referenced the depiction of women in film). Gaignard’s work definitely takes influence from film but it isn’t afraid to embrace the nitty-gritty of the streets and the clothing and food that very much root it in this day and age. Many of her pieces feel like street photography shots with a contemporary edge.
Even if viewers don’t know the full context of the works, it’s still possible for them to enter each photograph from their own vantage point.
“It’s my hope that this exhibition, which extends beyond the works on the wall to an immersive installation, fosters discussion about the intersectionality and, what is sometimes, the resulting feeling of invisibility,” curator and deputy director Naima Keith said via email.
Keith points out that Gaignard gets inspiration from pop culture as well (everything from drag culture to Wes Anderson to Rihanna). She first encountered the artist’s work in 2015 and was especially struck by “the dimensionality of her work, particularly the way in which Gaignard incorporates cinematic and popular culture references to disrupt notions of race, class and gender.”
“Smell the Roses” features both photography and installation. Gaignard studied art, design and photography and often finds herself using multiple mediums to create her pieces.
“Just as I resist clean labels when talking about my own identity, I resist clean labels for what type of artist I am,” Gaignard says. “By using a lot of different mediums, I'm not constrained by any of them. I'm allowed to explore them as they feel useful and right. I can put one medium down and come back to it.”
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It makes sense that “Smell the Roses” would happen now. Racial tension continues amidst conversations around politics and current events — particularly police brutality. Gaignard’s photos ask that we reconsider the body of color through the lens of self-portraiture. It urges us to think of individual stories, of bodies that are more complex than the stereotypes often used against them.
“As police violence continues to target black lives, I think a lot of people are openly asking bigger and harder questions about identity,” wrote Gaignard. “A lot of people are grieving, a lot of people are looking for healing. We need to stop and smell the roses.”
“Smell the Roses” is on view from Oct. 19 -Feb. 12, 2017. California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park. caamuseum.org.