In Genevieve Gaignard’s solo show “Us Only” at Shulamit Nazarian, she imagines three distinct character personas, all of which connect to her identity as a high yellow femme woman. She is of mixed race but her identity reads to most people as a “ginger,” a white girl, ultimately rendering her invisible as a person of color.
The three domestic installations of Gaignard’s show set up girl characters that are beginning to form their own identities, each with their own signifiers of race, class, sexuality and gender. In the first domestic installation, where the walls are a powder pink color, we encounter a plethora of porcelain kitty sculptures, baby pictures of Gaignard and her family, an old-fashioned white wicker chair, and a litter box that’s too small for an actual cat. We also see present-day photographs of her in character, standing in front of a 99 Cent store on Sunset Boulevard. We are left wondering who she is, what she will buy, who she will become, and how she’ll start to actualize herself in the world. We also wonder if the character is a secret cat sculpture hoarder.
In the yellow room, we see a harder version of this previously innocent girl, looking more mature and way edgier. Her hair is threaded into tight tiny dangling braids, and she wears yellow pants and a blue shirt with the cursive lettering HOODRAT THANGS on the front. In this space, we see a Wheaties box with Stephen Curry on the front, and books like The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein, Feminism-Art-Theory compilation, Chris Kraus’ iconic I Love Dick, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. On another shelf, we see a Pee-Wee Herman doll, an old Brownie camera, the Aretha Franklin record “Young, Gifted and Black” and some Nag Champa incense. This character is more interested in herself as sexual and not-white-passing, at times radicalized, but still down to just hang out, light some incense, and talk feelings. This is a view into her private space made public through its re-contextualization in the gallery.
The third installation takes place in the corner of a light green bathroom, replete with a powder blue toilet that has a bright pink seat cover. The woman here has her bright orange hair wrapped up in a beehive, inspired by the high camp aesthetic of John Waters’ film HAIRSPRAY. At first she appears to be a church-goer, for it looks like there are pews in the background, but actually this portrait of her is shot at L.A.’s Union Station, which is where she is employed. From this installation, we gather that she’s a working-class woman who probably takes the bus places rather than driving. When she gets home from her long day at work, she takes off her clothes and leaves them on a pink rug before stepping into the shower or relaxing somewhere. We’re only tipped off to the woman’s possible high yellow or mixed-race identity by two mermaid pieces that hang on the wall, a black girl and a white girl. We wonder when she’ll get out of the shower and if, when she does, she’ll want to meet any of the people who have shown up in her space.
Despite being a few decades away from segregation and centuries away from slavery, we still obviously live in a country that is plagued by its inability to talk about race, with cases regularly surfacing that document American pop culture’s dumbness. Remember the other week when Taylor Swift touched The Weeknd’s hair and thought that it was okay to touch a black person’s hair and ask belittling questions about it? This is an interesting entryway into Gaignard’s work, the idea of how being high yellow complicates her relationship to Blackness and how she is read out in the world, yet isn’t necessarily a conversation about what it’s like to “pass.” She remains hyper aware of this, rather than riding the white privilege wave. In her show she explores the multiple identities that she could embody based on the ways she is perceived.
In addition to her characters and installations, Gaignard makes shoes that could operate as their own fashion-as-brand line of objects. Each is a one-liner pun-a-licious joke that refers back to her racial identity. Gaignard’s boots “High Yellow Forest” have yellow forest-y bits that come up high on the calves. The “Straight Buggin” boots are blue with toy roaches all over them, a pun that also just makes one think of the many roaches that they encounter on sidewalks in L.A. We also see other selfies of Genevieve throughout, including one with her tits out that makes her appear sexual and luscious but not in a pornographic way. Gaignard does a masterful job of playing with racial codes and gendered bodies in a way that is both beautiful and emotional, for any woman who has wondered to themselves about how they’re seen in the world. It is about making this gentle yet honest request to someone, who could be either a stranger, friend or someone else, who only sees them for their cultural mirror reflect. It is saying to someone, anyone: Tell me how you see me, I want to know.