Aspex Portsmouth

Week 38, Being Mammy, 40 Stories

Joanne Bushnell, Director

I had been following Harold Offeh’s emotionally and intellectually engaging performative/video work since first seeing his RCA MA show, and later in New Contemporaries and at Gasworks. When Josephine Lanyon, then Director of Picture This, a Bristol-based moving image agency offered Aspex the opportunity to show a new body of his work that they had commissioned, I was thrilled.

Being Mammy was part of Ghosting, a series of research-based commissions on the themes of archive, memory and ethnography. Working with sources from the Bill Douglas Centre, based at the University of Exeter, Harold Offeh examined the life and career of actress Hattie McDaniel, who famously played and won an Oscar for her role as ‘Mammy’ in Gone With the Wind.

Being Mammy explored the world of the ‘Mammy’ caricature and evoked the tragedy of the talented typecast actor doomed to recreate and replay the same role. Late in her career McDaniel was singled out by Civil rights activists for perpetuating negative stereotypes; her response “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t I’d be making $7 a week actually being one.” Offeh saw this quote as central to the construction of Being Mammy: filled with the heavy pathos of a woman trapped by a stereotype.

The exhibition examined some of these conflicts, and the relationships between role-play, stereotyping and identity, through a multi-media installation combining several performance video works, contextualised by a series of objects including replica pre-cinema artefacts, posters and other ephemera.

Looking back I remember this exhibition as extremely important and challenging, so I am thrilled that as part of our Aspex (life begins) at 40 programme of digital commissions, NT will reflect and take it forward; as while the Mammy stereotype now seems somewhat archaic, her ‘sister’ the Sapphire (presented as an angry/sassy/bitter black woman) is very present in contemporary culture. NT’s new work will be presented on our website next month.