The artist from Brooklyn, Ilana Harris-Babou has been creating videos similar to those we are all familiar with. She uses the medium of videos similar to home improvement and cooking shows as she puts it, “As a Trojan Horse to get into the viewer’s line of sight.” “I reference these genres in order to confront the expectations of the American Dream.” Her work is powerful and subtle. Now the artist is part of the biggest exhibition representing the current state of American art, the Whitney Biennial. We had the opportunity to discuss the work “Reparation Hardware,” with the artist. A spoof home repair show tackling issues of land ownership, sharecropping and other issues facing the African American community for centuries. The American Dream is not at grasp simply by hard work. There are so many elements at play and Harris-Babou challenges those ideals.
Are you a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person?
Often when something good happens I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m working on being more optimistic. There really are so many amazing things to appreciate, sometimes I just can’t believe it.
Explain to us using the errotic as power?
In “The Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power” published in 1978, Audre Lorde talks about eroticism as a way of looking at the world. It can be a way of owning labor through sensuousness and play. She says: “There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”
Tell us about your medium. You construct satirical cooking and home improvement shows with deep conversations around race. How were you drawn to this approach?
I use the aspirational tropes of popular culture as a Trojan Horse to get into the viewer's line of sight. Once seen, the work distorts the abject failures of material desire. I reference these genres in order to confront the expectations of the American Dream; to face the ever unreliable notion that hard work will lead to upward mobility and economic freedom. I see humor as a tool to digest painful realities.
Your work displayed at the Whitney Biennial, “Reparation Hardware” is one of my favorites of the exhibition. Tell us what you were trying to communicate and accomplish with this piece?
I was looking at the promotional videos Restoration Hardware, a high-end furniture company, releases when the come out with a new line of furniture. In the video, I play the role of furniture designer finding inspiration in a bucolic American landscape. My script is built from language in design catalogues, Steve Jobs quotes, Reconstruction era field orders, Marcus Garvey writings, and testimonies of 19th century black homesteaders, among others. I examine the impulse to rewrite history with the help of tastefully refurbished antiques. The video is part parody, part tutorial, and a proposal for the delivery of reparations to African-Americans.
Do we have hope?
Yes! We don’t have the luxury to abandon it.
If you could sit down and have a conversation with anyone dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I’d chat with my grandma (she’s passed away) and catch up. She was a tough lady, and very inspiring. She did laundry full time at Bellevue hospital in New York, yet she always found time to be creative. She also loved WWE wrestling and her tobacco spitoon.
We love the idea of where creativity comes from and how it can be lit by anything. When was the last time you saw something and felt inspired to create?
I really loved the Mika Rottenberg show that’s up at The New Museum in New York right now. After I saw it, I wanted to run back to the studio immediately and start making. And then I wanted to run back to the museum and look at the whole thing all over again.
What do you listen to when working in your studio?
I mainly listen to podcasts. I like economics podcasts, true crime, food podcasts… I’ll listen to anything once. It’s great. It feels like I have a friend in the room chatting with me. It’s a controlled form of distraction.
What do you want to accomplish with your work?
I want my work to inspire as many people as possible to become artists themselves.
What is your favorite place to grab a bite to eat in Brooklyn?
Probably at a friends house. I waste all my money on food when I’m back in Brooklyn. I’m Brooklyn born and raised. When I was growing up there weren’t as many restaurants to waste money in as there are now. It’s so amazing when someone you know has a kitchen big enough to cook an actual meal.
Video by: Ilana Harris-Babou
To see the artist's work go to: