Artist Genevieve Gaignard grew up in the town of Orange, Massachusetts. Her mother was white, her father black ― one of the first black men to live in the small town. “I was always really aware that we were different,” Gaignard explained in an interview with The Huffington Post.
While Gaignard was well aware of her biracial identity, most of her classmates and neighborhood acquaintances simply saw her as the pale-skinned, redheaded child she was. They assumed, in other words, like the majority of Orange citizens, that Gaignard was white. “I passed along with everyone else,” she said. “I blended in.”
As a kid, Gaignard spent a lot of time in her room. “I was shy, quiet, in my own little world,” she recalled. She would listen to the radio, make collages and plaster magazine cutouts on her wall. She’d also obsessively look into the lives of celebrities like Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, women who also were both black and white. She studied how they defined themselves, the spaces they occupied and the ways they existed in the world. “I would think, ‘Oh, they get to be black,’ or, ‘They’re kind of passing as white,’” Gaignard said. “I would search for images of their parents, trying to get clues. It’s interesting how media or the industry often decides where someone will fit in.”
With no outside force to define her, Gaignard was left, like so many young people, feeling undefined. “It was this not knowing how to identify,” she expressed. “Not feeling black enough, not feeling white enough, that was the struggle.”
After a stint in cooking school, Gaignard enrolled in community college and eventually found herself at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she became interested in photography. Her main inspiration was Diane Arbus, a photographer captivated by the fringes of polite society, enamored with the world’s outsiders, others and freaks. “She saw their flaws ― the things that aren’t usually seen as attractive or beautiful ― as their most amazing qualities,” Gaignard mused. “And I guess I had a sense of relating to the subjects that she photographed.”
Following in Arbus’ footsteps, Gaignard began to photograph the world around her. She chronicled her family, the people in her town, and eventually, she started experimenting with putting herself in front of the lens. The simple gesture stirred up questions within the artist that had long gone unanswered. “Is this my space?” Gaignard said. “Where do I fit in the world? This idea of passing — do I pass in this space?”
It wasn’t, however, until Gaignard was working toward her MFA at Yale, among other artists of color who incorporated aspects of race into their work, when she fully realized her capacity to use art to tell her story. “My experience as a person of color is different than others. I have something to say,” she said. “The stuff I say now sort of addresses a lot of the feelings I had as a child.”
Now, Gaignard most often photographs herself, although, because of her ability to camouflage with wigs, makeup and clothing, the average viewer might not recognize the recurring protagonist. In each image, Gaignard embodies a different woman, although she’s more of a stereotypical embodiment of otherness than a fully fleshed out character. The images playfully tease out the multiplicity that exists within all of us, while confronting the mainstream resistance to accept such ambiguity, especially when it comes to race.
Many of her photographic performances, Gaignard explains, begin with an object ― the right wig, dress, or pair of high heels. The artist often scours thrift stores hunting for inspiration, a practice not all that different from many women shopping for a special occasion or a big night out, carefully curating the woman they want to become, if just for a night.
In her photo “Extra Value After Venus,” Gaignard dons an American flag bathing suit beneath a black tank top that reads, “Thug life.” With long, dark hair, gold hoop earrings and a watermelon bandana, Gaignard presses her body against a wall adorned with an American flag, a McDonald’s fries carton and soda in her grip. What words would you use to describe such a woman? Gaignard dares the viewer to respond. Where does she come from? In which spaces does she belong? How much of her is me? How much of her is you?
There is an element of drag culture in Gaignard’s practice, both in the act of performing femininity and the kitschy style in which the performance is executed. In part, this predilection toward camp was inspired by Gaignard’s mother, who grew up in Baltimore and often attended John Waters’ parties and movie premieres. “I really got into ‘Hairspray,’” Gaignard explained, “both for its subject matter and also because its lead character is a larger woman ― and a star. My work addresses that too. It’s about race, but it’s also about embracing the fact that you’re not this ideal the media puts out.”
Gaignard’s photos reject simplicity in any and every form. Through fashioning imprecise personas, often formed through stereotypes and as such both real and fictitious, she alludes to the omnipresent influence of race without ever declaring a straightforward argument or critique on the subject. But the work is more than race, addressing issues of femininity, body positivity, identity and belonging with the ease of trying on different outfits.
“There’s a lot of back and forth,” Gaignard said. “I’m the subject, I’m the photographer. I’m literally passing as a character, while actually not being all that far from the character that is being portrayed. These are all just facades for the girls who can’t really verbalize what’s going on inside.”
The artist’s most recent exhibition, “Smell the Roses,” is now on view at The California African American Museum. The venue itself brings Gaignard tremendous pride. “It’s huge for a girl who has often felt just on the outside of being allowed to embrace her blackness.”
“Smell the Roses” is on view until Feb. 12, 2017 at The California African American Museum.