What does it mean to be a woman? A black woman? A housewife? These are questions Genevieve Gaignard explores with her new exhibition, In Passing, at the Houston Center for Photography. As a biracial woman, she considers the complicated ways her identity emerges from the intersections of gender, class, and race.

The collection of photographs is composed of self-portraits introducing the viewer to different facets of her identity. From pin-up girl to grocery-laden housewife, Gaignard uses her body as a canvas, demonstrating the fluidity of public perception, societal expectations, and racial identification based on her physical appearance. Each photograph is a daring iteration of the same artist who transforms into a different character with each historical setting.

The exhibit is both an emotional and intellectual exploration: family portraits and a wall of vintage handheld mirrors are counterbalanced by novels in mounted bookcases that address the black experience.  Slowly, the exhibit takes the viewer on a journey, peeling back the complicated layers of Gaignard’s performed identity. As she adopts different costumes and personas, each portrait adds to the multitudes she contains.

While the exhibit is mostly self-portraits, the most unexpected part of the exhibit is the model living room arranged to feel like a home of the 1940s. The room immerses you in a world of symbolic meaning where the kitchen and living room are full of objects that encourage the viewer to speculate about the home’s residents. The Southern cookbooks, iconic Jiffy cornbread mix, and Uncle Ben’s boxed rice all act as culturally recognizable items that give the space personality.

The room is both full and empty: full of objects the viewer will assign meaning to, but empty of inhabitants. The occupant remains a mystery, a fabrication of the viewer’s beliefs and assumptions. In this way, the room acts as a metaphor for the way Gaignard has been misunderstood. In Passing exposes the contradicting narratives that have been imposed on Gaignard—the exhibit is another way that she makes herself vulnerable to scrutiny in order to explore who she truly is.

Thru Oct. 22. Houston Center for Photography, 1441 W Alabama St. 713-529-4755. More info at hcponline.org.

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