First Look: Ilana Harris-Babou

Ilana Harris-Babou: Human Design, 2019, video, 5 minutes, 40 seconds. 

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ILANA HARRIS-BABOU says that her mother is among the worst cooks she knows, which might come as a surprise, since the artist creates videos and ceramics that spoof cooking shows. Her mother, Sheila Harris, has co-starred in some of these works, most notably Cooking with the Erotic (2016). The video shows the two women crafting sometimes delectable, sometimes abject foods with lumpy, handmade ceramic tools while reciting lines from black feminist writer Audre Lorde’s 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” One poignant section focuses on Harris kneading a bag of margarine to blend a pellet of yellow dye evenly into the white mass. As a child, Harris performed this task in the kitchen for her own mother, who worked as a live-in maid in a Connecticut home. Rather than viewing the domestic labor as drudgery, though, she reclaimed it as an act of play. Lorde sees a metaphor in the sensuality of dyeing margarine: “I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”

After receiving her MFA from Columbia in 2016, Harris-Babou decamped to Richmond for a teaching fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University. The city’s legacy as the former capital of the Confederacy inspired her 2018 video Reparation Hardware. Filmed mostly in a barn in Williamstown, Massachusetts—where she currently teaches at Williams College—the video appropriates language from a Restoration Hardware commercial to advertise clunky ceramic homages to figures important in black history like Marcus Garvey, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. The video’s nostalgic tone collapses the past and an unspecified future. “Their liberation was handcrafted,” Harris-Babou explains in one scene. The voice-over accompanies a black-and-white photograph of the artist standing with a rake, as though she were both historian and liberated slave.

For the Whitney Biennial, Harris-Babou is working on a new video, Human Design, that further probes connections between forced migration and material culture. In it, the artist portrays an urban explorer who traces the history of objects for sale in a high-end design store. As she travels from New York to Africa, her documentary-style narrative slips from modernist platitudes about “good design” to Picasso’s exoticizing remarks about seeing African masks in the Trocadéro Museum. When she reaches the House of Slaves on Gorée Island, Senegal, it becomes unclear whether her search for origins has been focused on objects or on herself.