Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century, Home, 30 April 2016 – 3 July 2016.
“The melodramatic body is a body seized with meaning” writes Peter Brooks in “Melodrama, Body, Revolution.” Body is not only a sight branded with meanings and symbolism, but also a sight where resistance becomes possible through the gestures and mimics where what is repressed comes back to life. Melodramatic bodies are sights of both stigma as well as expression and resistance, something that the new Home exhibition Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century successfully brings forth by revealing the politics on and of the body, more specifically through the representations of race, gender and sexuality in the post-digital world in which we live.
The exhibition opens with Sophia Al-Maria’s new work, Scarce New Flowers, a photographic series of real products, “facial whitening creams” sold in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa with instructions only in Mandarin and Arabic. With the images of real boxes with women’s faces on them growing, being repeated and distorted, the product itself becomes melodramatic and hyperbolic, acting as a stark reminder of on-going racial stereotypes (and passing) that exist within a cross-cultural spectrum.
Passing as white is a subject widely discussed around Fanny Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and its later movie adaptations, the work that gives its title to the exhibition. The novel was published in 1933. Almost immediately after its publication, in 1934, its first movie adaptation, directed by John Stahl, made it to the big screen. The life of the story however was not limited to one adaptation. In 1959, an iconic name for melodramas, Douglas Sirk, made another adaptation of the novel. This version, although not as loyal to the original story as John Stahl’s version, gained far greater popularity. The story, narrating two women’s struggle to take care of themselves and their daughters, was revealing of racial and gender stereotypes by portraying the black maid (Delilah/Annie) as the caregiving “mama” whose daughter (Peola/Sarah Jane) passes as white and the white single mother (Bae/Lora) who chooses a successful career at the cost of not providing care for her daughter and not uniting with her loved one. In 2002 Todd Haynes remade the movie, this time shifting the focus from race to homosexuality. For almost a century, Imitation of Life has acted as a vehicle to expose societal norms, clichés and archetypes around race, gender and sexuality. The Home exhibition Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century takes its inspiration from Sirk’s adaptation and revisits the dynamics behind the movie in another century and discovers race, its representations and the myths around it with painstakingly striking works of art from Larry Achiampong’s exploration of the representation of race in mainstream culture to Jordan Casteel’s portraits of black men within domestic settings in fragile and genteel images.
The exhibition asks the question “How do we perform race in the 21st century?”. By using hair extensions, Lauren Halsey’s We the ones (blackngold) presents the world of shiny and pastel-coloured LA beauty shops. The colourful artificial hair, stripped of its daily context turns into an object of fantasy. Loretta Fahrenholz’s video Ditch Plains is another work that looks at bodies as means of expression in a contrasting setting: the poverty-striken parts of the urban landscape of New York. In seemingly motionless and dead parts of the city, dancers’ performances turn into acts of resistance to racial and economic division. Looking at race and bodies in the 21st century, it is also impossible to think about these subjects without also taking technology into account. If melodrama is the great hyperbole, Jacolby Satterwhite’s video works remind us exactly this. Reifying Desire 6, where he combines his mother’s drawings with 3D technology and animation, offers the 21st century hyperbole of the bodies where domestic life melts into a simulation. In this video, genitals turn into computer tablets and the desire surrounding bodies refers to a virtual reality.
The representation of race in the Western media and popular culture is another subject that is tackled by the artists. Martine Syms’s installation S:1:E:1 reveals the representations of blackness and gender in American sit-coms. Larry Achiampong’s Gltyth on the other hand uses “cloudface” images of black heads with red lips and his personal family album. The artist creates striking and powerful images of racial stereotypes by taking the image of “golly” and placing it on family portraits. The photographs point to a recent past of racial discrimination as used in everyday items from children’ books to food products (when especially considered Robertson’s mascots were changed only in 2001 and how the company insisted that the change was not because of how deeply problematic the image was but rather for marketing reasons) and the need for a debate on how blackness is represented in material and cultural products. Jayson Musson’s ART THOUGHTZ: How To Be A Successful Black Artist is another work in the exhibition that explores African-American identity as a discriminatory role in arts and academia and undermines them through a hyperbolic performance.
As opposed to mainstream representations of race and gender, Jordan Casteel’s portrayals of men offer intimacy and everyday reality. In an interview with Art Versed, Jordan Casteel notes, “I felt I needed to make a body of work that dealt with the humanity of men in my life, black men specifically, and that would show the vulnerable, sensitive side of them that I would encounter when at home or in intimate personal spaces.” With that the exhibition also takes under close scrutiny masculinity as a performance. Loulou Cherinet’s White Women video looks at stereotypes surrounding black men in the spectrum of gender. We are invited to a dinner table where men narrate personal stories concerning their experience with white women. As traditions, prejudices, work, marriage and flirting are discussed, the video cleverly exposes stereotypical roles attributed to black men, how they perceive white women as well as how they think white women perceive them. In no time, the viewer feels caught somewhere between being part of the dinner table and being an eavesdropper and the video offers an intimate conversation on the politics of race in the private sphere of love and sexuality. Michael Armitage’s portraits on the other hand show dream-like, almost fleeting visions of men and intimacy. Armitage’s choice of canvas, Lubugo, a traditional bark cloth from Uganda which has characteristic holes due to its process of production, creates intentional flaws on the portraits, increasing the dreamy effect. With pastel colours and misty images, both Campus Divas and Kampala Suburb offer the melodramatic imagery of race as well as queer sexuality with the socio-political climate of Kenya in focus.
Melodrama as the great hyperbole of bodies, still exposes bodies fattened with meaning and attribution. The exhibition invites us to a critical debate on how race is performed and perceived today. Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century will be on until the 3rd July, 2016. Alongside the exhibition, a companion book, Fear Eats The Soul, will be available soon.
Şima İmşir Parker