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Lili Reynaud-Dewar - Blacking Up With Jean Genet

It’s somehow fitting that Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s artist talk and
screening of radical author Jean Genet’s explicit 1950 film, Un Chant
d’Amour, was postponed last Wednesday night due to the public service
workers strike that caused Tramway to be closed. It’s fitting too that
another film, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, containing hitherto
unseen footage of the radical Black Panthers movement’s leading lights,
is on a limited release in Scottish cinemas the same week that
Reynaud-Dewar’s new performance piece does appear at Tramway for one
night only alongside the delayed talk and screening.

The political thinking behind Jean Genet’s Walls, Speaking of Revolt,
Media and Beauty, after all, is a vital signifier of both its content
and influences. This has been the case with much of Reynaud-Dewar’s
work since the Paris-based former lawyer and dancer graduated from
Glasgow School of Art’s influential Environmental Art course.

“I find Genet's political commitments admirable,” Reynaud-Dewar says
of the self-styled literary outlaw and author of fantastical
auto-biographical fictions such as The Thief’s Journal as well as plays
including The Blacks, “but not devoid of certain ambiguities and
misunderstandings, which I think are what make a political commitment a
‘personal’ quest for understanding oneself in the world, and not just
obeying a certain set of rigid commandments. I also find it
interesting that Genet transgresses the boundary of ‘community’ by
committing to the causes of the Black Panthers, Palestine and North
African immigrants [in a recently de-colonised France], articulating a
common discourse and a thread between those different ‘issues’.”

In performance, the result of Reynaud-Dewar’s line of inquiry will
animate a group of previously sculpture seen earlier this year at
Northampton Contemporary and built as an “anti-monument to Genet's
political writings and aesthetics via recordings of some of his crucial
texts. With assorted Genet-related objects placed around the
performance space, a video of Reynaud-Dewar interviewing poet and
radical commentator Pierre Giquel will be translated in performance by
long-term collaborator, burlesque dancer Mary Knox, described by
Reynaud-Dewar as an “iconic figure of Glasgow's night scene.”

“I am not performing for this piece,” Reynaud-Dewar says, “but
directing to me is not giving indications to my performers as to how to
do or say things, since I choose them because I like the way they
already do or say things. Directing is producing a situation of both
pleasure and intensity that allows the unleashing of precious material.
I guess the sculptures and props are already quite ‘directive’ anyway.”

This ties in with Reynaud-Dewar’s study of German playwright and
director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Anti-Theatre, a company in which
regular hierarchies were destabilised by Fassbinder among his regular
‘family’ of collaborators in a consciously political set of
interventions.

“You could be playing the leading role one day, and the next be the
prop assistant,” according to Reynaud-Dewar, “not only as a way to be
both productive and independent in the context of capitalism, but also
to remain on its margins. Interestingly, although he is destroying the
hierarchy of theatre, Fassbinder remains the director. I have also been
influenced by his way of working consistently with friends, creating
particular and intense moments in order to produce work.”

With Fassbinder too tackling issues of race and colonialism in films
such as Fear Eats The Soul, it’s significant, perhaps, that both Genet
and Fassbinder were homosexual men and conscious outsiders whose
oppositionist stances affected all their work.

“Genet used his ‘marginality’, as thief, prisoner or orphan, to create
a sort of complex common thread between different political causes,”
Reynaud-Dewar explains. “I use those figures to articulate an
understanding of my own identity as a woman, as an artist, etc. For me
it is a way to unfix my own life, and these references to
homosexuality, black politics and feminism have served my understanding
of my position in the world.”

Genet himself was a master of the subversive gesture, as demonstrated
in what turned out to be his final TV interview in 1985, a year before
his death. Genet disarmed the interviewer, English playwright Nigel
Williams, to such an extent that the tables (and camera) were turned on
Williams, with Genet becoming interrogator. Reynaud-Dewar recognises
Genet’s on-film stance as a key to how he functioned.

“I find it quite exemplary of Genet's radical life and work,” she
says, “his reversal of hierarchical order, and his refusal to occupy
any kind of ‘stable position’, or enjoy any ‘stable’ recognition as a
writer. Indeed he managed to make this figure of the writer somehow
disappear and be subverted by the activist by not writing any fiction
for more than twenty years and nearly secretly working on the
posthumous Prisoner of Love. This scene is reminiscent of a similar
subversion of roles orchestrated by Jean-Luc Godard in a television
interview given in the aftermath of 1968.”

Reynaud-Dewar hasn’t seen Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 yet, but given
that one of the Black Panther leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, exiled himself
in Algeria (the same location, incidentally, where acid guru Timothy
Leary was decamped to after being sprung from jail by white
revolutionary group, The Weather Underground) the connections with her
work are paramount.

Beyond Genet, issues of colonialism and race are implicit in much post
World war Two French literature. Marguerite Duras, another writer who
fictionalised her own life, tackled her own feelings head-on, as
Reynaud-Dewar acknowledges.

“I am interested in how Duras used her own life and autobiography to
question colonialism,” she says, “but also to understand herself as a
product of this particular form of oppression; ie, she never denies her
own fears and her own subconscious racism. In one book, for instance, she describes how, after her detoxication cures (she was an alcoholic) she has hallucinations about Asian people
wanting to harm her. Instead of denying it, she uses the subconscious as a tool to challenge racism and colonialism.”

Duras is of interest too in relation to Reynaud-Dewar in terms of how
her work was multi-faceted, with screenplays morphing into novels or
plays, a la India Song.

Running alongside the Tramway events is Some objects blackened and a
body too, a series of new video works at Mary Mary, the independent
gallery which represents the artist. In these works, a blacked-up
Reynaud-Dewar looks to the choreography of Josephine Baker and her
relationship with Le Corbusier, who is himself said to have blacked-up
and sported Baker-like feathers in order to seduce her.

With previous works drawing on such black totems as Rastafarianism and
radical jazz composer Sun Ra (who purported to hail from Saturn),
Reynaud-Dewar clearly isn’t afraid of tackling a racially sensitive
taboo already explored in part, incidentally, by live artist Linder
thirteen-hour performance, The Darktown Cakewalk, at Glasgow
International Festival of Visual Art in 2010. Reynaud-Dewar’s 2009 Mary
Mary show, The Power Structures, Rituals & Sexuality of the European
Shorthand Typists, also featured blacked-up performers.

“The colours of the piece in Tramway are directly inspired by a quote
by Genet referring to his collaboration with the Black Panthers,”
Reynaud-Dewar says, referring to a 1975 interview in which Genet nailed
his own colours to the mast by asking ‘Am I a Black whose colour is
white or pink, but a Black?’ ”By describing the skin colour in such an
abrupt and direct way, Genet transgresses the notion of race and
articulates the political meaning of it, and even the question of class
that circulates around these questions.”

“I use blacking up (onto objects, onto performers) as a way to subvert
the rigidity of identity and to question the ‘neutrality’ of whiteness,
as I would question the ‘neutrality’ of the masculine if I cross
dressed as a man, maybe. In the case of the Mary Mary videos, they are
black and white, so it is not really certain my body is blackened. It
could be blue or purple.”

Jean Genet's Walls, Speaking of Revolt, Media and Beauty, Tramway,
Glasgow, Saturday December 10th, featuring an artist’s talk and
screening of Un Chant d’Amour ; Some objects blackened and a body too,
Mary Mary, Glasgow, until January 14th 2012

www.tramway.org
www.marymarygallery.co.uk

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Herald, December 8th 2011

ends

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