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When singer Billie Holiday debuted “Strange Fruit” at Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1939, the song quickly became an urgent clarion call that would bring the world’s attention to Jim Crow-era lynchings. Since then, it has become one of the most powerful and prolific protest songs of the 20th century.
The nation continues to grapple with the dual terrors of police brutality and wanton gun violence, which have been recast as newer, more insidious forms of lynching (the number of Black Americans killed by police has actually increased in the two years following the murder of George Floyd in 2020¹). Artist Genevieve Gaignard examined the legacy of racial violence and its current reverberations in her recent exhibition Strange Fruit at Vielmetter Los Angeles, using a version of Holiday’s iconic song as the show’s haunting heartbeat. The beautifully macabre rendition, created and performed for the show by Samantha Farrell and The Big Red Band,² echoed throughout the gallery from a vintage jukebox.
Gaignard is a photographer and mixed-media artist who combines self-portraiture with immersive sculptural installations consisting of found materials like photographs, carefully chosen books, and porcelain bric-a-brac that bring the interior lives of her subjects into full view. In Strange Fruit, the artist included familiar elements: twin Victorian inspired installations took the shape of large, wall-sized cameos; a family room parlor installation with a wall of framed family photographs and a pair of tiered dumbwaiter tables were each topped with a figural porcelain lamp. Contemporary elements like text-based neon works hung among the vintage motifs, bringing history firmly into the present.
While processing the events of 2020, Gaignard created a new series of work for Strange Fruit that specifically correlates police brutality with lynchings. Yet, she deliberately avoided visual depictions of Black trauma, opting instead to turn the perpetrators of racial violence into targets. She lined one corridor of the gallery with a series of columns, each hosting a dismembered Royal Doulton-style porcelain head with a satin ribbon tied around the neck. Placed on red cushions, the heads were positioned alongside a series of photographic self-portraits. In them, Gaignard poses lithely in a weathered, plantation-style mansion, wearing antebellum-esque gowns as the spoils of slavery surround her. Here, Gaignard subverts notions of entitlement and privilege by removing the veil of security that surrounds white women, instead placing white fragility on a pedestal that symbolically evokes a head on a spike. As the artist turns racism on its head, she asks white viewers to imagine themselves as the victim. In May, I spoke with Gaignard about Strange Fruit, its origins, and the contemporary themes that pulse through her work.
Colony Little: What were the issues and concepts that were percolating in your mind as you put this show together?
Genevieve Gaignard: It was really a direct response to what was unfolding on our TV screens during the past two years, between Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others. I was in Massachusetts [for a residency at MCLA] at the time [of Floyd’s murder], and I was processing what was unfolding as a lot of us were and still are. These are all modern-day lynchings. To be honest, there was a lot of work in this show and it’s such a heavy topic. I really feel like there’s a continuation to the project that will start to be created.
CL: Conceptually, where did you start that process?
GG: Once I knew I wanted to tackle this idea of modern-day lynchings, I still [wanted to use] materials and imagery from the past, so I wasn’t going to shift away from that. I did want to expand on my fabrication and push what I’ve used in the past in hopes of evolving the materials.
You’re familiar with the figurines, where I used the head of the mammy figurine and the body of the Royal Doulton figurine [to] create these new figurines, which I’ve displayed in the show in[side] the grandfather clock and on some of the shelf pieces. But in my studio, I ha[d] these headless mammies and the Royal Doulton heads. I was processing [and asking] how can I take the theme of “Strange Fruit,” of lynchings—which are grotesque, hurtful, hateful acts—and visually create something that would put oneself in the position of seeing what that would be like specifically for white folks?
The way that ended up being presented was [by] having those heads be the replacement for the act of the lynchings.
CL: The fact that they were resting on red pillows and the ribbons that you had around their necks to evoke ropes…
GG: These are all subtle things that I was hoping that the viewer would catch on to. The final result is this piece that speaks to lynching, but at the same time speaks to the fragility of whiteness and how we have to tiptoe around these things that were just so natural to partake in when they were happening. But no one wants to own that. In the past, it was celebrated; it was a spectacle.
CL: There is an interplay with your portraits that works really well with the installations. Can you tell me about the personas you inhabited when you took those portraits?
GG: I know that part of my story is whiteness. So for these photographs, I was willing to put myself in the position of this character that was written into history as this precious flower. The white woman is put on a pedestal, and I continue to put her on a pedestal, but in a darker way, with the sculpture. It’s owning both parts of my story. [Born to a white mother and Black father, Gaignard has often explored the duality of her identity in her work.]
In most of my work, I’m trying to celebrate and elevate Black stories and how I fit into th[em], but for this, I felt like I needed to shift my approach a little bit and put myself as “the victim,” or the precursor to ending up on the pedestal. You see that all of the characters in the photographs are wearing the ribbon around their necks, and you see that again in the sculptures.
CL: Another familiar aspect of your practice is the hand mirror wall, which we have seen in previous exhibitions. Can you tell me about the way the mirror walls play into the experience of your shows?
GG: I don’t want white viewers to feel like I’m pointing the finger at them, but I also am: “Did you see this? Can you look at this? Did you know that this is part of your story? Start to unpack that history of hatred.”
I think a lot of us, when we walk into an art space, are thinking, “what was the artist thinking about?” or “how is this part of their story?” And for me, the mirror stops the viewer in their tracks. They’re confronted with themselves, and they have to know it’s about where they’re showing up and how they translate what they are seeing in front of them.
CL: Let’s talk about the iconography of the mammies and the fruit crates that appear in the show.
GG: All of these ideas started flowing through me [in thinking about how the] themes of “Strange Fruit” could be presented as it pertains to modern-day lynchings. The way the show was set up, you’re hit with those crates, you see some of the photographs, you see the mirrors, then you turn to see this hall of heads. That’s very loaded in itself. That could have been the show.
I wanted to set up a space to address the people that these acts have actually happened to—the lives that have been lost and the families that have suffered from those losses. How do I elevate us instead of showing imagery of the breakdown? Creating the pyramid with the mammies, I didn’t know how that would be perceived. I just knew that I wanted to see them in abundance. I had a sense of what it might feel like to see a lot of those figurines. I feel that there [were] several reads that could be taken on that as well. Once I saw the figure without the head and the stance that she’s in—the hands on the hips, this power pose—I started to feel this kind of army-like presence, especially when I saw the figurines in this large number. And then there was a collage that was made in conversation with those called And Still We Bloom (all works 2022). All of this underlying stuff that has happened to us—that continues to happen—there’s still so much that we give and create. We just show up. Black folks are amazing, and through all of that, we are still shining and beautiful.
CL: That’s a perfect segue to the Family Tree wall with all of the photos. I love your vignettes; they make me feel like I’m in a family member’s home. That piece was powerful because you saw pictures of multiple generations of Black folks thriving and happy—it’s such a beautiful counterpoint.
GG: So often the imagery of Black families is not presented in a positive way, so any time I have an opportunity to create a space that celebrates Black families and reflects a positive image like that to white audiences, I am all for it. As a white person viewing the work, you might feel some type of way about how you experience that hallway of heads, seeing a representation of whiteness being the victim of said lynchings… but the reality is that this didn’t happen to you, you did it to us. The Family Tree installation is like a shrine or altar to the real victims of these hateful crimes.
CL: Music has played a role in your previous installations, but the jukebox is a new direction. How did that piece come about?
GG: The jukebox has been hanging out with me for a while. In my thrifting for other installations, I came across that jukebox. I have a friend from back home who has a beautiful voice and a growing singing career. I just love looping people that have been in my life journey, [who have] ties to home and my upbringing. Samantha Farrell graciously agreed to do a rendition of this iconic song that most people wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
For this show, I collaborated with a lot of people to make it come to life, but specifically with Samantha, I’m a fan of her music and I knew what her voice could do already, so I knew she could handle it. She has this vibrato in her voice that adds this haunting quality to her rendition. She reached out to a few musicians that she’s worked with. [The song] becomes complex and layered in itself, because most people think it’s the original lyrics, but I asked Samantha to sing “white bodies swinging in the southern breeze” as opposed to “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” You have to catch it at the right time; you really have to be clued into it, or you miss it.
For me, when it felt like everything was lined up perfectly, the music was at the right level, no one else was really in the space… Your eyes start to well up, the chills start to come on your arms… you feel it. I know that this has really happened to people. There are victims of this story, and it’s not the figures on the pedestals.
Samantha’s voice gives such a mood, similarly to Billie Holiday. It was interesting to give this group of artists the space to create something uniquely their own.
CL: Looking ahead, is this theme of lynching and legally sanctioned violence something you want to continue to explore?
GG: There’s one piece specifically that I was trying to finish but I quickly realized I wouldn’t have been able to give it the justice and care that it needed… There are specific people’s stories I wish to acknowledge—for example, the story of Michael Donald. In my research, I learned he was the last documented [victim of] lynching by KKK members in 1981, the year I was born, and he was only 19 years old. That’s really not that long ago. The more research I do, it’s clear there is an ongoing list of stories that I can expand on in my work as I continue to interrogate this part of our American history.
CL: Your work contends with events of the past while addressing a cultural imperative to speak to present challenges. Can you talk about how you achieve this balance within your practice?
GG: My practice is driven by my goal to create environments and experiences that awaken critical thinking and offer a shift in perspective. The balance between addressing history and present issues comes eas[ily] because our current issues as a culture are not so far removed from the past. So long as history repeats itself, my work will strike that balance.
Genevieve Gaignard (b. 1981) is a multi-disciplinary artist who uses self-portraiture, collage, sculpture, and installation to elicit dialogue around the intricacies of race, beauty, and cultural identity. Since 2019, Gaignard has debuted six solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group shows. Her most recent solo exhibition, Strange Fruit, with Vielmetter Los Angeles, marks her most ambitious body of work in scale and subject matter. Gaignard splits her time between her hometown of Orange, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 29.