From the moment we’re born, society places structures and ideals upon us. These expectations are as strict as they are abstract. Most of us cannot fit into these tight standards because we are not one thing.
Each of us is a collection of several different categories that creates identity. We can have one trait in common with a particular group of people while another with a very different community. After all, people are complex beings, not stereotypes. Why is it so hard for the social order to understand that?
We are born to our first culture through kinship and family. We then begin to adopt the heritage of our local community and, eventually, one related to the nation or territory where we grow up. Yet in this era of oversimplification, as well as political strategies based on a "divide to conquer" mentality, we are forced to identify with only one aspect of ourselves.
What happens when we choose to rebel against the system? When we refuse to remain a two-dimensional cartoon of somebody else’s perception of who we are?
Artist Genevieve Gaignard’s childhood story as a biracial child, who struggled with body issues and belonging, is something we can all identify with. Think about it: children of immigrants often feel like they’re walking with their right foot in their parent’s culture, while the left is ankle-deep into the world they’re growing up in. While society tells all of us to pick a side, which one should we choose? The heritage that has nurtured us or the life that promises us an easier merge into our environment?
By playing dress-up with pop-culture archetypes, Gaignard throws it all back in society’s face. You can be two, four, ten, or fifty different things at once. You can be a comic book geek, who loves listening to Heavy Metal, while your driving your Prius to Sunday Church, before heading to an Anti-Fracking protest. Why not?
Not long ago we said we lived in a Post-Racial world. These days we feel like we’re no longer existing in that environment. The powers that used to be have hit us in our Achilles heel, making us run to our respective corners. In a moment of panic, we’re forced to choose favorites. We’re driven to select only one aspect of our identity to stand behind. Whether it’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, immigration status, or even musical taste, we are taught to be blind to others' complexity, because we ourselves have turned our own identity into a stereotype.
In an interview with the LA Times, Genevieve spoke about her exhibit at the California African American Museum: “I often pair things that are stereotypically white with things that are stereotypically black and put them together to create a language that, hopefully, expresses what it’s like from my experience to be mixed race.”
However, despite the humorous playfulness of the whole project, another aspect of her exhibit, an installation called Smell The Roses, was done as a coping mechanism after the artist suffered a tragic loss. And in truth, despite the colorful and over-the-top outfits, the images bring us back to something we can all relate to, no matter our background: loss. We will all eventually lose someone dear to us or be afraid of those we leave behind in case of our own demise.
While the world attempts to separate us by looking at what makes us superficially different, artists like Gaignard prove how intrinsically similar we all are on a deeper human level. During uncertain times like these, this is a soothing reminder that none of us are truly alone. If we choose to look beyond the frameworks imposed by society and those in power, we’ll see we all suffer from the same insecurities, feeling of invisibility, as well as uncertainty.
The more comfortable we get in our own skin, the easier it becomes to see that our identity has been shaped by an entire home and outside environment. Our true persona is a conglomeration of comfort and hardship, as well as steadiness and ambiguity.
Next time someone calls you a contradiction or a paradox, don’t cower or feel ashamed. Be proud of standing up against society and proving yourself to be an open ended response to Yes or No questions.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Gaignard / Shulamit Nazarian