Artist of the Month

July 2019
Michelle Williams Gamaker

This month, Bethan Lewis, Project Curator (Arts Council Collection) at the Walker Art Gallery focuses on Michelle Williams Gamaker, whose work can be seen in Walker Art Gallery’s current National Partners exhibition, As Seen on Screen.

 

Michelle Williams Gamaker is a London-based moving image and performance artist. Her work explores the legacy of 20th-century British and Hollywood studio films by restaging them and recasting their characters. The resulting alternative narratives redress the marginalisation of people of colour in the original films by restoring them as central figures who challenge their fates. The artist calls this ‘fictional activism’.

Williams Gamaker's Arts Council Collection work, House of Women, 2017 (an extract from which can be viewed below), portrays auditions for the role of Kanchi in a re-make of the 1947 film Black Narcissus. In the original film Jean Simmons played the Indian character. As Simmons was white, her face was painted with dark makeup, and she wore a jewel in her nose in order to portray the ‘exotic temptress’ of Rumer Godden’s novel. In House of Women the artist auditions only Indian expat or first-generation British Asian women and non-binary individuals living in the UK. They read an alphabet that refers to the history of photography and gender politics. This artwork reflects on how cinema has reduced race and gender to clichés.

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House of Women is part of a trilogy called Dissolution. In each film, characters from Black Narcissus unravel as they become self aware. The trilogy also includes The Eternal Return (2018), which considers the career of Sabu, an actor from India who starred in the films The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and The Jungle Book (1942), and who wears the scent in Black Narcissus that lends the film its title.

Sabu was the son of a mahout (an elephant driver) and became a mahout himself in the service of the Maharajah of Mysore. Sabu was riding an elephant when he was spotted by documentarist Robert Flaherty, who cast him as Toomai in Elephant Boy (1937). Williams Gamaker compares his treatment to that of the elephants alongside whom Sabu so often appeared in films.

 

The Dissolution trilogy also includes The Fruit is There To Be Eaten (2017). In this film, the Black Narcissus characters Kanchi and Clodagh realise they are on a film set in 2016. Decolonisation means Clodagh has lost her role as sister superior. Kanchi introduces her gods and challenges the imposed belief system of Christianity.

Writing scripts, working with actors, collecting film paraphernalia and producing props are all key elements of Williams Gamaker’s practice. She has also performed roles herself, such as her alter ego ‘Violet Culbo’, a mute stowaway from Asia. Collaboration is also an important aspect of Gamaker’s work. She has worked with artist Julia Kouneski and artist and cultural theorist Mieke Bal. Williams Gamaker also co-founded the Women of Colour Index (WOCI) Reading Group with Samia Malik and Rehana Zaman.

 

As Seen on Screen is at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until 18 August 2019

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The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.