A SHORT ANALYSIS OF
ILANA HARRIS-BABOU’S WORK
by Adriana Blidaru
Our identities are prone to be shaped by the material objects that we own and the brands that we buy more than we would like to admit. However, contemporary aspirational brands or products can be perceived as rich anthropological materials: they serve both as barometers and as shapers of human desires, ideals, and aspirations.
In many of her works, Ilana Harris-Babou looks at these aspirational spaces of consumption, to investigate the erasure, omission or disregard of specific histories within them. By mimicking their aesthetic and their promotional discourse, Harris-Babou’s video works materialize in remakes of cooking shows (Cooking with the Erotic, 2016), DIY reality TV shows (Reparation Hardware, 2018) or travel shows (Human Design, 2019), and expand beyond that, into site-specific installations and sculptures.
Harris-Babou’s work supports the argument that the objects that we surround ourselves with are extensions of who we are or of who we aspire to be; they create a sense of past by rooting us in a specific history and mold our future by influencing our desires and actions.
In her essay Orientations Matter, writer Sara Ahmed explains why any given object must be perceived through its “arrival” in the present, as it embodies not only a history of the material that composes it and the processes of labor through which it was made, but it is also embedded with a social and ideological history: “[… objects] take shape through social action, through the activity of a whole succession of generations which is forgotten when the object is simply given. What passes through history is not only the work done by generations but the sedimentation of that work as the condition of arrival for future generations.”1
The idea underlined here, in Ahmed’s quote, is embodied in Harris-Babou’s practice. The artist looks to depict the importance of the political and social sedimentation within specific objects or discourses, which is neither available nor evident in their assigned role as aspirational commodities.
For instance, in the video work Red Sourcebook from 2018, the artist is filmed circling and marking the pages of a home decorations catalog with a red sharpie. The cinematic shots of Harris-Babou nonchalantly flipping through the catalog are accompanied by subtitles. These quote a broad range of textual materials that the artist used as research. On the one hand, there are passages used from a 1936 Federal Housing Administration document for home loans, advising on how to keep the property value up: “A home close to a public park or nature is safe from lower social occupancy coming from that direction.”2 On the other hand, there are passages taken from presentations by the spokesperson of the home-furnishing company Restoration Hardware: “We curate the very best people, products, ideas and inspiration from around the world. We put each in a composition that renders them more, not less, valuable. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, or, as he quotes Steve Jobs about “ratcheting up our species through taste.”3
These juxtaposed sources are compressed under the guise of corporate jargon, making for the accompanying text to sound and feel homogenous. This re-appropriation of textual materials can be inflammatory when taken out of their original context, and could become problematic, but it manages to successfully highlight systemic issues—specifically addressing the United States.
Redlining started in the US and Canada, and was done by marking on city maps the ‘problematic’ areas, in order to systematically cut them off from social or financial benefits (including banking, health insurance, and housing). This led to a long and discriminatory history of housing segregation and discrimination against black and brown communities, creating such a deep division in the geographies of cities and territories, that it is still felt today, after more than half-century of integration efforts.4
By showing the paradoxes embedded in pitches by aspirational brands like Restoration Hardware, Harris-Babou’s implicit critique shows how this traumatic history continues to linger, and how it is deeply embedded yet concealed under the glossy surfaces of our aspirational culture.
The artist renders a similar paradox through the video-work Human Design, produced in 2019 for the Whitney Biennial, where she questions how cultural currency is appropriated in contemporary design, and how specific histories are edited out.
Playing the role of the designer-as-genius who works for a company specializing in furniture and home accessories, Harris-Babou takes the viewer on a journey to discover the origins of “good design.” The video is a satire that imitates the aesthetic of the travel TV show, but what is initially the quest of finding the origin of two wooden plates carved with tribal patterns becomes a story of self-discovery.
“Design without the knowledge of its history origin and culture is like a tree without roots. I knew I had to find the source,”5 says the designer. Throughout the work, parody is signaled not only through the cringe-worthy and cliché corporate language, but also through other subtle elements that immediately stand out as generic tropes when taken out of their original contexts. For instance, the background music often played in retail stores is amplified in Harris-Babou’s video and is further used as an indicator of transitions between scenes. The parody, though humorous, conceals an important critique of how traditional objects and crafts are traded, appropriated and whitewashed, and how their history is discarded for traffic and commerce.
This journey takes the designer to Africa, where she finds the origins of the two plates on a small porch crowded with masks, totems, and other wooden carvings. But she requests an even deeper examination on the origin of these objects, which further leads to the “Maison des Esclaves” on Gorée Island, in Senegal. A house that was built in 1776, and used as a temporary holding center for African slaves to be sold overseas. Inside the house, a door known as “The Door of No Return”, opens up right into the gleaming ocean. Some accounts say that this door served as a direct passageway to lead hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves on ships. Harris-Babou’s video, like all her other works, does not disclose too much. The tragic history of the house remains unknown to the viewer until further investigation. But the emphasis is too straight-forward to ignore and too crucial to miss in understanding the work.
In her book, A Map to the Door of No Return, poet and writer Dionne Brand refers to The Door not only as a historical moment but also as a metaphorical inheritance that the Diaspora lives with:
“The door casts a haunting spell on personal and collective consciousness in the Diaspora. Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting. One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience. Where one can be observed is relative to that history. All human effort seems to emanate from this door.”6
The presence of this history can feel even more urgent in a context in which an object’s re-appropriation as a commodity fails to account for its past and its conditions of arrival. Harris-Babou manifests this urgency through different layers, personas, and experiences, devising a journey and recalling a trauma that is personal and collective, individual and universal. The artist uses humor and the comedic effects of appropriation and parody, to allure the viewer into deep waters: “It really comes down to how you frame things and what you let people see. The goal is to strip away excess and get down to fundamental ideas,”7 concludes the main character in Human Design. But this conclusion opens up to a powerful whirlpool of questions: whose history is abstracted, compressed, or omitted? For what purposes? Who has the power to define or strip an object away of its history? And for whom?
1. Sara Ahmed, Orientations Matter, in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 234-257.
2. Ilana Harris-Babou, ilanahb.com/Red-Sourcebook.
3. Ilana Harris-Babou, ilanahb.com/Red-Sourcebook.
4. “Nonwhite School Districts Get $23 Billion Less, Than White Districts Despite Serving the Same Number of Students.” EdBuild, edbuild.org/content/23-billion.
5. Ilana Harris-Babou, Human Design, 2019.
6. Dionne Brand, Forgetting, in A Map to the Door of No Return (Toronto: Vintage Canada , 2001).
7. Ilana Harris-Babou, Human Design, 2019.
ILANA HARRIS-BABOU (b. 1991, Brooklyn, NY, USA) has exhibited work throughout the US and Europe, with solo shows at Larrie and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. She is among the participants of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. She holds an MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University, and a BA in Art from Yale University.
ADRIANA BLIDARU (b. 1989, Romania) is a curator and writer based in New York. She is the founder and artistic director of the curatorial platform Living Content. Her writings have appeared in Kaleidoscope, The Brooklyn Rail, and Revista Arta, among other publications. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art from Oxford University and her Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies from Bard CCS.
All images Courtesy: the artist
Video Courtesy: DIS