Genevieve Gaignard (b. 1981) is a photographer, collagist, and installation artist who explores race, femininity, and class using a range of strategies, including character performance and self-portraiture. Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition, is a site-specific installation in which photographic self-portraits, in the guise of various alter egos, are set in and amongst built environments informed by places from Gaignard’s past. Each of these components engages the theme of loss, from the artist’s personal experience of grief to the suffering felt collectively by the nation faced with cataclysms such as Hurricane Katrina and police shootings
of unarmed black men and women.
Gaignard’s immersive installations comprise imagined parts of homes inspired by the architecture of New England and New Orleans, respectively. Filled with readymade objects that the artist sourced from thrift shops and her own family archives, these “psychological spaces” give context to the themes and characters in her photographs. The first includes the mid-century-era bedroom and bathroom of a young girl, which for Gaignard represents the bedroom of her 8 1⁄2-year-old niece who died tragically in a house fire. While the room’s interior is untouched by flames, its façade is marked by a sign of fatality, leaving space for the audience’s own interpretations.
A spray-painted X marks the outside of a second house, recalling “Katrina crosses” — notations that rescue workers made on New Orleans houses to list the date, time, and number of people found alive or dead after Hurricane Katrina. Inside this structure, Gaignard recreated the communal living room and kitchen of a southern shotgun-style house to suggest the disproportional trauma endured by many African American families through the hurricane and subsequent relief efforts. Loss also permeates a third environment, which includes a video of the artist lip-synching to her rendition of Missing You by Diana Ross. Gaignard repurposes the song — originally a tribute to Marvin Gaye — as a memorial for Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and other black men and women who have lost their lives as a result of racial injustice. Covering the walls is a paper silhouette, recognizable from shooting ranges, overlaid with roses. This provides the inspiration for the exhibition’s title: not only does it refer to Gaignard’s niece’s middle name (Rose), it also challenges the audience to “stop and smell the roses” — or, in other words, to pause and observe.
In the photographs on view, Gaignard pictures herself enacting different aspects of race, sexuality, and gender using elements such as costume and setting. Photographed in Los Angeles, Massachusetts, and New Orleans, Gaignard incorporates different regional characteristics into her explorations of how intersectional identities are constructed, negotiated, and perceived. As with the structures in the exhibition, each of these figures—clad in constricting clothing or uncomfortably posed—is processing an unnamed psychological hardship, evidenced only by their somber presence. Throughout the installation, Gaignard urges viewers to consider the complexity of loss on a personal, collective, and national scale.
This exhibition was organized by Naima J. Keith, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Programs.