Art

The Liberation of ’90s R&B Divas

In her solo show at American Medium, E. Jane reconsiders the musical genre as a site of black freedom.

Installation view, E. Jane: Lavendra at American Medium (photo by Jillian Seinhauer/Hyperallergic)

In Lavendra, the current exhibition at American Medium gallery, viewers ponder ’90s R&B and its agency. Silk digital prints hang on the gallery walls, showing collaged portraits of black female musicians from the time, while videos play on LCD monitors installed on the floor. The room is dim and washed in purple, invoking Alice Walker’s landmark novel The Color Purple (1982). On the monitors, the artist E. Jane performs as her avatar, Mhysa, singing and lip-synching to three different songs.

A through line emerges from E. Jane’s selection of material from the ’90s. One of the songs is “Sittin’ Up in My Room,” recorded by Brandy and featured in Waiting to Exhale, a 1995 film in which four black women dream and articulate their desires. Produced by Kenneth Edmonds for Arista Records, the film’s soundtrack includes a range of black divas, including Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and Whitney Houston (who also stars in the movie). Blige and Houston dominate E. Jane’s collage prints for the show.

E. Jane, detail of “A Woman Who Loves Other Women” (2016–17), digital print on silk, mixed media, 40 x 60 inches (image courtesy the artist and American Medium)

Lavendra is both self-expression (E. Jane’s own performances) and tribute (the collection of pop singer portraits). The work uses strategies of the performance of the self — particularly the video selfie — in a way similar to the artist’s 2015 digital piece “An ephemeral instagram installation that has already changed,” which includes nine 15-second video self-portraits. This brings to mind writer Rob Horning’s idea of a tension between “the static profile and the real-time experience of being a self in a dynamic social media feed environment.” While “An ephemeral instagram installation” originally existed as a real-time feed, it has come to live in an online archive. Horning adds that “the tension between the archive and the feed puts pressure on this concept of authenticity.” This implies that self-performance on social media fractures authenticity. Is E. Jane Mhysa? Is Mhysa E. Jane? For the exhibition viewer, that distinction can be murky, further complicating the question of the artist’s relationship to Brandy, Blige, and the other women featured in the show.

Lavendra creates a hazy feeling of nostalgia for the 1990s, but doesn’t bring the viewer beyond it. Though the exhibition borrows aesthetic and sensual gestures (for example, video choreography) from the pop divas, it glosses over the issue of how black women’s sexuality has been relegated to the recesses of American feminist discourse. The title of a silk print, “A woman who loves women,” gives only a hint of the queer undertones.

It’s a far cry from the work of artists such as Cheryl Dunye and Kara Walker, who have presented complex images of the desires of black women. Even so, Lavendra invites viewers to reconsider ’90s R&B as a site of black freedom — an important gesture in the midst of Trump-era sexism. Singing and embracing black diva-ism, E. Jane suggests, could be a form of liberation.

E. Jane, “Sittin’upinmyroom-mhysa.mp4″ (2015), video, sound, 3’19” (image courtesy the artist and American Medium)

E. Jane: Lavendra continues at American Medium (424 Gates Avenue, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn) through May 7.

Correction: This article originally misstated the name of E. Jane’s avatar in the exhibition; it is Mhysa, not Lavendra. We regret the error. It has been fixed.

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