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SAN FRANCISCO — The Jamaican-born supermodel, actress, singer, songwriter, and record producer Grace Jones has been a unique force in many worlds, which has led her to be both a subject and inspiration for much contemporary art. As a supermodel, she pioneered an androgynous look that challenged gender roles and the definition of femininity. As a musician, her work spans 10 studio albums, beginning in disco and transitioning to 1980s New Wave. Her film career has included acting in 21 films and one video game — Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller. Over the past five decades, Jones’s bold, androgynous, angular aesthetic has penetrated the depths of pop culture and fine art.
At the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), The Grace Jones Project chronicles her legacy through a collection of more than 20 contemporary artworks interspersed with vintage album covers, videos of her performances, and wall text detailing Jones’s global influence. Some of the works in the show pay tribute to Jones and some were chosen because they address relevant subjects, like the black body or queer identity. The exhibition includes still art as well as several video installations and a floor-to-ceiling projection that cycles through short films. It features work from artists including Jacolby Satterwhite, Simone Leigh, and Wangechi Mutu. Satterwhite’s video installation juxtaposes footage of a solo dance piece with a futuristic digital animation that excavates gender expression and queer identity. Leigh’s wire sculpture is set in a light-filled room off of the main gallery. The piece is a wire cage in the shape of an 18th-century hoop skirt, under which the viewer can walk. The piece, “Cupboard III,” references the skirts worn by black American nannies in the South. Wangechi Mutu’s illustration, “Sick Planets,” presents bubble-like creatures with stray arms, legs, and waving blades of grass — a visual expression of the tensions experienced by women who have ambiguous relationships with the tropes they portray. Mutu’s video installation, “Eat Cake,” is embedded in the gallery floor. In it, a black woman squats in the forest, wearing translucent platform heels, and messily devours a tiered chocolate cake.
Hyperallergic spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Nicole Caruth, and MoAD’s director of exhibitions, Emily Kuhlmann, about the importance of Jones’s aesthetic legacy and the challenge of doing it justice in the context of MoAD’s broader mission.
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Rachel Cassandra: Grace Jones is, of course, an incredible, indelible figure. Can you talk about why you chose to build a show around her?
Nicole Caruth: I find it curious when critics ask, “why Grace Jones?” For me, it’s not a question of why, but why not? Why has no museum exhibition been devoted to Jones, especially when so many contemporary artists reference her in their work or speak openly about the impact that she’s had on them?
In exhibitions, Jones is often looked at through the lens of her white male collaborators: Keith Haring, Richard Bernstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Jean-Paul Goude, especially. Many texts would have you believe that she was merely a muse, but she was developing her own visual language through these collaborations and through performance. She consciously assumed racist notions of the black body, and heteronormative ideas of male and female, femininity and masculinity, to twist and subvert them or, as the writer Steven Shaviro suggests, “to blast them into outer space.” She left an unforgettable mark on the 1980s. When you consider what she was doing back then, her performances now feel all the more radical, formidable. Goude was instrumental in shaping Jones’s image, so you can’t ignore their work together. However, I decided to focus on Jones’s influence on artists of later generations, artists of the African diaspora, and their engagement with black or queer identities.
RC: What was the process for choosing artists and did all of them specifically identify Jones as a primary influence?
NC: It wasn’t about selecting artists for me so much as selecting artwork. I don’t think my research process is any different from that of other curators — studio visits, phone calls, oral and written historical research, artist recommendations, lots of YouTube, a Grace Jones concert — all of these things informed my decisions.
RC: Some of the artists explore aspects of queerness in their pieces. How does Jones show up in contemporary queer art, if we can use an umbrella term?
NC: Jones has always had a notable LGBTQI following. I wouldn’t limit her to “queer art” though; she’s part of visual culture and that’s global and pansexual.
Works by artists such as Jacolby Satterwhite and Gerard Gaskin touch on the relationship of Jones to the performance of queer identities in virtual or actual space. Gaskin, for instance, photographs the house ballroom scene, where gender and sexual identity are “redefined and critiqued,” where, as he [Gaskin] writes, “Women and men become fluid, interchangeable points of departure and reference, disrupting the notion of a fixed and rigid gender and sexual self.” It’s worth mentioning that the height of Jones’s career (which I identify as 1978 to 1986) coincided with a proliferation of New York City balls and houses, the AIDS epidemic, and the vibrant club scene of that period that Jones was part of.
RC: Can you talk a bit about stylistic appropriation in relation to Jones?
NC: I think it’s important to acknowledge how much pop culture today has taken from Jones, and without attribution. Cauleen Smith touches on this in her piece, “Living Grace’s Life in The Google” (2013–16).
RC: What do you hope audiences are taking from this exhibition?
Emily Kuhlmann: I always want audiences to leave the museum thinking and looking at the world in new ways. By recognizing Jones’s influence in popular music and everyday visual culture, or making connections between other artists and their debts to her performance, I hope people are able see innovation in the continuing performance of Grace Jones.
NC: Everyone will walk away with something different. That being said, since I started working on this exhibition I’ve met several people who have never heard of Grace Jones or whose knowledge of her begins and ends with films like A View to a Kill or Boomerang. I thought about these folks a lot as I was building the exhibition. I hope that, at the very least, those who were previously unfamiliar with Jones recognize what a force she is in music and performance art.