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She's taking race for a ride

PROVIDENCE -- Products, ideas, and people, all packaged for easy consumption, pass through our lives daily. Yet the way we ourselves are packaged is harder to change, and often the source of strife -- particularly when that package is skin color. The artist Tana Hargest applies corporate marketing strategies to race. Like most advertisers, she's full of promises about how her products will lead to perfection -- in this case, life unencumbered by racial issues. But as you get caught up in the whiz-bang packaging of Hargest's work, you'll discover that her promises are distinctly tongue-in-cheek.

She has dreamed up a theme park, "New Negrotopia." Packaged as bright and happy as Disneyland, it's actually filled with rides referring to the history of race in America, such as the "Cotton Bales on the Mississippi" flume ride. Her trade-show booth selling "New Negrotopia" is part of "The Interventionists" exhibition at MASS MoCA in North Adams.

She performs sometimes, as both an African-American CEO and a friendly attendant. The installation makes its points about how race pervades living in America with wicked and withering humor, all wrapped up in an over-the-top, perky package.

"For the most part, people are overwhelmed," says Hargest. "Then slowly they realize this is not quite right, and they become more aware of what's going on. There's this time-release element to the work."

Hargest, 34, has been living in Providence while putting "New Negrotopia" together. She plans to move to Boston in September to be closer to the Museum of Fine Arts, where she has a job developing educational tools in new media, such as video and interactive computer programs.

She found the inspiration for her artwork a few years ago when the Federal Communications Commission authorized commercial advertising for pharmaceuticals. "They were promising a whole host of things," Hargest recalls over drinks at XO, a trendy eatery here. "And then you see all of these side effects. That was around the time someone came up with a kind of fat-free chip that, by the way, caused anal seepage. Nobody would go out and purchase anal seepage, but if they package it well enough, you would buy it."

Hargest's response was to found "Bitter Nigger Inc.," a fictitious parent company with a variety of subsidiaries, including a broadcast network, a product line, and a pharmaceutical company. In this alternate reality, Marva T. Stewart, Martha Stewart's black next-door neighbor, has a show on the network. The product line includes Holo Pal, a hologram of a white man in a suit who can accompany a black person when he or she is applying for a loan or trying to rent an apartment.

The pharmaceuticals featured Tominex, "a go-along-to-get-along pill for younger blacks who want to achieve a level of complacency that usually takes years of broken dreams to achieve," Hargest says.

The booth for "New Negrotopia" was the next step. Her point -- like that of most of the artists in "The Interventionists" -- is not to be in a museum but to spring her work on an unsuspecting public.

"She smells a rat when people say we are past talking about race," says Nato Thompson, curator of "The Interventionists." "She caters to the underlying anxiety there in a sickeningly sweet way."

Hargest is surprisingly soft-spoken considering that her art is so loud, bright, and subversive. She has caramel-colored skin and red hair; her speech carries a hint of her native Minnesota. She calls herself biracial.

"It's confusing," she says. "My mother looks white, but her grandfather was black. My father was black. Part of my history is constantly renavigating what race means."

She points to Adrian Piper, whose work also undermines attitudes about race, as an influence, as well as to Andy Warhol and photographer Carrie Mae Weems. "But Carol Burnett is just as much an influence," she puts in. "And Flip Wilson is as important as Carrie Mae Weems."

Humor is crucial to Hargest's work, including "New Negrotopia," which she's been working on for two years.

She was putting the final touches on the piece in February when her father died unexpectedly; for a while, she struggled to find comedy in anything.

But the job at the MFA, which she took in March, helped. She's at work developing new technologies to run in the museum's galleries and online so that learning about the art on the wall will be more involved, and more fun, than simply reading a didactic panel.

"Since I went in kindergarten to see a big Picasso exhibit, I thought being an artist and working in a museum were the same thing," Hargest says. "I used to play that my job was a museum worker."

Dressed in a uniform, performing as an attendant at "New Negrotopia," Hargest is still playing at being a museum worker. It's part of her art. That she happens to work at a museum as well -- that's icing on the cake.

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