'Still I Rise': Art that evokes 'thoughtful experiences'

Genevieve Gaignard's "The 99cent Store" is on display at Kidspace at Mass MoCA.

NORTH ADAMS — In Genevieve Gaignard's portrait, "The 99cent Store," a young woman, dressed in a pink sweatshirt with black kittens on it, jeans with a rip in one knee and white boots stands on a street corner outside a discount store. Her hair is crimped and frizzy. She stares directly at the viewer, as if she can see them too.

The image is simple, but the young woman's stare is intense, confident. Who is she? Does she live in that neighborhood? Or is she a tourist taking an ironic photograph? The viewer's questions are left unanswered, but hopefully, those questions will spark a conversation or internal dialogue on a deeper level.

"My hope is that the work sparks conversations around acceptance of others and breaks the notions of stereotypes in order to embrace the many complexities of identity," Gaignard said of her work in an email interview with The Berkshire Eagle.

Gaignard, a Los Angeles-based artist, uses photographic self-portraiture, sculpture and installation to explore race, femininity and class.

With "The 99cent Store," she's posed herself as a teenager, in an ordinary situation.

"She's challenging the immediate judgment you make when you see this image. She requires us to go deeper, to think about the assumptions being made about that person," said Laura Thompson, curator of Kidspace and director of education at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Originally from Orange, Gaignard's artwork focuses on her biracial identity — her father is African American, her mother is white.

"The inspirations behind my photography, and all my work, stems from the voice of my inner child and the experiences I had growing up biracial in America," she said. "As I play back moments from from my past, I'm able to explore through my art a lot of the questions and feelings I had about not fitting in or belonging in a racially divided society."

Gaignard's work will be part of the year long exhibition, "Still I Rise" — opening Saturday, June 15, at Kidspace at Mass MoCA — which uses portraiture, specifically of women and women of color, to explore the topics of female power, social privilege and the representation of women in art history.

"We're coming off of a four-year project focused on social-emotional learning, with series on empathy, optimism, courage and problem solving. We wanted to look at exhibitions in which that skill set could be applied," Thompson said. "We also wanted to look at portraiture and it has been a while since we've done anything that focused on revisiting art history. We also really wanted to examine race with kids, to be able to have some conversations with them about why certain people were not included in the western art historical cannon."

Artists like the duo E2 - -Kleinveld & Julien (Elizabeth Kleinveld and Epaul Julien) reinterpret famous paintings, such as "Washington Crossing the Delaware" or "American Gothic" to include historically underrepresented people.

"A lot of artists included in the show use their art to build an awareness of the fact that these groups have been marginalized and not included in these very white western cannons; whether visual or art historical narrative," Thompson said.

She said collage artist Deborah Roberts uses her art to question what is "considered beautiful and who gets that word placed on them."

With her collage work, Roberts challenges how race and beauty are portrayed in popular media and how these images have contributed toward the marginalization of African American identity.

"Both Genevieve and Deborah create work based on their personal experiences growing up. They share the same experience of questioning their identity and of how they are being perceived," Thompson said.

Also included in the show are works by Japanese Canadian artist Tim Okamura and Gustave Blanche III.

Blanche, a figurative painter known for his portraits of everyday laborers, ranging from life-size images to pocket-sized paintings, will exhibit a painting of celebrated New Orleans chef Leah Chase.

Chase, who recently died at the age of 96, was known as the "Queen of Creole Cuisine" and was famous for hosting many heads of state at Dooky Chase's Restaurant.

"This show makes good connections to other exhibitions at the museum, such as Cauleen Smith's 'We Already Have What We Need' or ERRE's 'Them and Us / Ellos y Nosotros,' opening in August," Thompson said. "In a lot of cases, across the museum, we're really thinking about identity and contemporary issues at the forefront of politics, discussions, debates and protests that are happening ... We really want to acknowledge that our visitors are coming to us with all sorts of knowledge and we want to capitalize on it and use the art to facilitate discussions that need to be had and are happening. We really want to provide opportunities for these very thoughtful experiences to happen."

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter at @BE_DigitalJen and 413-496-6229.

Jennifer Huberdeau, can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-1866. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.