Genevieve Gaignard’s Timely Work Documents Racial Injustice and Calls for Change

Dominique Clayton
Oct 13, 2020 9:10PM

Genevieve Gaignard, ​Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred)​, 2017. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

In a period when many are glued to their devices, waiting for the latest updates on the upcoming election or ongoing pandemic, it’s hard for creatives to focus on new projects and work. Yet for artists like Genevieve Gaignard, who retreated to an artist residency shortly after the onset of the pandemic, this time has served as the catalyst for continuing to create groundbreaking work that speaks to our past, present, and future.

Gaignard recently returned to Los Angeles, where she is based, after spending roughly five months at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts. There, she completed the inaugural Artist’s Laboratory residency program and opened a new exhibition at MCLA Gallery 51, titled “A Long Way From Home.” Both initiatives are led by the director of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center Erica Wall, a Black gallerist and curator who previously ran her own space in Santa Ana, California. “Genevieve is such a deep and amazingly prolific artist, whose work reflects her laser focus and commitment to documenting and illuminating racial injustice in the U.S. over time, in real time,” Wall said. “Social media can hardly keep up with her!”

Genevieve Gaignard, ​White Guilt,​ 2020. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Genevieve Gaignard, ​People Make The World Go Round​, 2019. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.


While the effects of COVID-19 caused all of the programming around the residency and the exhibition to move online, Gaignard and Wall made virtual magic happen by pivoting to a series of workshops, sessions, and a lovely exhibition opening via Zoom. There, alongside other artists and supporters, I witnessed the big reveal of Gaignard’s latest work, which brought on a combination of laughter and tears.

“A Long Way From Home”—which is on view through December 7th and is presented in collaboration with Vielmetter, Gaignard’s L.A. gallery—features the artist’s signature mix of installation, photography, and mixed-media collage. She transformed the gallery space into a snapshot of an American town stuck in the past. Wall treatments made to look like a picturesque residential street complete with grass and lawn signs appear opposite walls of collage works and photographs featuring MLK, JFK, and other references to critical moments of American history that seem to keep repeating—a sensation that’s now heightened by social media.

Genevieve Gaignard, ​Remember This House,​ 2019. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Genevieve Gaignard, ​White Lies​, 2020. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Making this type of work is difficult, yet necessary. When a viewer praised one of the works from the show, Untitled (Jacob Blake) (2020), and its placement on a wall, by an exit sign, covered with the same green pattern, Gaignard shared her thoughts around processing the events that inspired the work—in this case, the August 2020 police shooting of the 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “How do you make something beautiful to honor a person’s life, while also trying to address the fact that this shit’s gotta be stopped?” Gaignard reflected. The mixed-media work is an elegant sign of both honor and departure.

Gaignard is well aware of the mixed feelings her work conjures. “We haven’t gotten as far as we’ve thought we have and it’s scary how we’ve lost ourselves,” she said. “I think about all the hard work that people have done over the years to bring us to where we are. But then, in the last six months, you see what’s happened with the Trump presidency and the pandemic on top of that. It’s like we’re in a time machine.”

Genevieve Gaignard, Neighborhood Watch​, 2017. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Wall noted that Gaignard “skillfully does the work of unpacking all our baggage for us, in plain sight…she spares no one’s feelings, including her own.” She added, “As a biracial woman, who considers herself a woman of color, she takes it upon herself to defend and uplift Black folks as a means of liberating them from the limited perception of who Black people are, have been, and have yet to be.”

One can easily understand Wall’s point upon seeing a piece like Disinfect Our Politics (2020), which includes an image from a vintage advertisement that features a blindfolded white man, who resembles a politician, centered between mirror images of Black women sporting face masks and cleaning sprayagainst a backdrop resembling an inverted confederate flag.Something in the milk isn’t clean and the imagery of Black women cleaning it up speaks volumes, not just in relation to politics, but to corporate America and the home.

Genevieve Gaignard, Disinfect Our Politics,​ 2020. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Gaignard’s work delivers messages with eloquence, grace, and extreme attention to detail. Unlike other visual storytellers, namely photographers, who turn their lens to capture images of today’s social climate in real time, Gaignard avoids graphic imagery and relies on the subtleties of vintage imagery. Despite this, she acknowledges that her way isn’t the only way. “If we look back at this time and there’s no visual acknowledgment of what’s going on, then we haven’t done our job either,” Gaignard said. “It’s a balance.”

Looking at Gaignard’s work, you can see what she might be trying to work through—feelings of home, identity, family, and belonging. Being biracial and, more recently, bicoastal (having been away from her L.A. home during the residency), there’s a sense of a constant effort of recentering and reworking through a whole host of feelings that’s relatable for many people, especially during this time of reckoning with the state of race, health, and politics in our country. “Sometimes I think, ‘How many feelings can you hold on to?’” she said. “I can put this particular feeling here or this mood can live here,” she added, nodding to the way her works become vessels for her emotions and concerns.

Genevieve Gaignard, And If You Don’t Know, Now You Know,​ 2020. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Experiencing Gaignard’s body of work is like watching a montage of films such as Imitation of Life, Gone with the Wind, Roots, Foxy Brown, Valley of the Dolls, and The Wiz. Like these polarizing, culturally specific American classics, she shocks and awes us with glitz, glam, pain, and violence, but in a nuanced way.

The reality of American history is that what’s nostalgic to one group of people is actually traumatic to another, so our good old American pie history isn’t as tasty as we once thought. That’s what Gaignard’s work so beautifully communicates.

“I feel strongly that Gaignard’s work is and will continue to be looked upon as a body of work that looks at race, takes all the pieces that make up how Blackness and Black people in this country have been cloaked in false assumptions, misperceptions, and tragedy, but then puts the pieces back together to create a perfect puzzle of Black excellence and joy,” Wall said.

Genevieve Gaignard, installation view of Black Is Beautiful,​ 2016. © Genevieve Gaignard. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

This fall, Gaignard also unveiled her latest project in New York: a sprawling installation across midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Plaza, part of Art in Focus, a partnership between Rockefeller Center and Art Production Fund. The project includes a mix of self-portraits installed in vitrines with additional props to enhance their narratives, as well as installations and vinyl displays arranged throughout the interiors and exteriors of the surrounding buildings. True to her past portraiture, Gaignard’s self-portraits channel multiple identities and roles that speak to the cultural distinctions and divisions among race, gender, and class.

This public project brings out what Gaignard does best: She encourages her viewers to stop, to consider who she is, what she’s saying, and how they feel about it.

“Once the art is made you have to continue to talk about what it’s about and break it down for folks,” Gaignard said, “and that helps me because I don’t always know what I’m getting at. It’s humbling because it’s mostly my story, but it’s also everybody’s story.”

Dominique Clayton
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019