Review: Michaela Pilar Brown’s "Things Get Lost" at Honfleur Gallery

MARTINA DODD

Through photography, mixed media and site-specific installation, Michaela Pilar Brown transforms the sterile white walls of Honfleur Gallery into a treasure trove of family heirlooms and collectible memories. Her image-based assemblages evoke a simultaneous sense of longing and loss while drawing from both personal and communal histories. Her work is too powerful to just be seen. It must be felt and its presence is heavy.

Brown cites that her artistic practice is largely influenced by “memory, myth, ritual, desire and the spaces the body occupies within these vignettes.” She is not restricted by age, gender, race or sexuality, but uses the body to illustrate an alternate reality that is not dependent on time or space. It is through this alternate reality that history is re-examined and the black female narrative is re-centered.
 

 Michaela Pilar Brown, The Aunties (2016), image courtesy Honfleur Gallery Facebook Page

 Michaela Pilar Brown, The Aunties (2016), image courtesy Honfleur Gallery Facebook Page

While moving through the gallery I was first drawn to The Aunties (2016), an installation set in the middle of the room. A long, thick braid measuring at least ten feet hangs from a pulley attached to the ceiling and falls to the floor. From one end, the rope-like tress dangles a severed baby doll head adorned in a light pink bonnet and black angel wings, while the other is tied to a small axle with two wheels. The face of the baby doll looks as though it had been darkened with black paint, which immediately evoked images of minstrels in blackface and vintage mammy dolls. Yet, the vivid pink hue of the coarse kanekalon hair rendered an entirely different memory from my past; one of joy instead of ridicule. It brought me back to the time my younger sister boldly wore box braids of the same shade of hot pink all summer and had the time of her life. The duality of happy and haunting thoughts conjured through this one piece embodies Brown's masterful use of common objects with racialized histories to seduce and repulse her viewer.

1979, Untitled, Weeping Moon (2015), image courtesy Honfleur Gallery Facebook Page

1979, Untitled, Weeping Moon (2015), image courtesy Honfleur Gallery Facebook Page

Mounted on an adjacent wall are works on paper that straddle the fence between surrealism and historical fiction. Weeping Moon (2015) and Untitled (2015) are much smaller in scale than her wall-length installations but are just as alluring in their oddity. Coded imagery and layered meaning cover the surface of these pieces as red and pink flowers bloom from the edges and multi-colored organisms float almost off the page.
 

 
While the majority of Brown’s work showcases black women as her subject and subject matter, White Girl Tears(2016) departs from this pattern to address the complexities of race and gender relations. A pale mannequin hand emerges from the wall delicately holding a small bundle of neatly braided blonde locks. The small braids are intertwined between the mannequins’ long slender fingers and hang loosely from her outstretched hand as if being presented as a trophy to her onlookers. This prized possession may seem insignificant or amusing at first, but after closer inspection the humor fades with the disturbing realization that the ends of the blonde braids are knotted into tiny nooses. Which raises the question: are black woman choking on the proverbial noose of european standards of beauty? And if so, will anyone notice their broken brown necks through the sea of white tears?
 
Things Get Lost is a thing of dark beauty. It brilliantly explores our constructed identities through stories associated with the materials we collect, hold onto and give away. Brown reminds us with this exhibit that family heirlooms are not just physical objects, but secrets, burdens, insecurities and dreams. While some of these make us stronger, others may hold us back and should get lost as we grow.
 
Things Get Lost will be on view at the Honfleur Gallery until January 28th, concluding with an Artist Talk from 2-5pm on the same day.
 
Honfleur Gallery
1241 Good Hope Road, SE
Exhibition: December 9 – January 28
Artist Talk: January 28, 2 – 5pm
 

Martina Dodd