We are invited to sink into a deep red armchair, slide on a pair of over-ear headphones, and watch a home video on the small television set before us. The cheery tones of ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ welcome us jovially into a cosy living room, where festive cards are lined up on the mantelpiece alongside family photos. A woman, dressed in a Christmas colour scheme – red stilettoes and a dark green dress – gives her parents a present to remember: an erotic dance.
As she bares her midriff and caresses her skin, mother and father look on from the sofa. The father sits still, arms folded, eyebrows slightly raised, lips tight, sight set on the show. His response is ambiguous at first but as time passes, he perceptibly leans forward, evidently engaged. The mother’s movements also become more pronounced. After glancing to her side several times, aware of her partner’s gaze, she begins to well up and raises her hand to her temple, visibly distressed.
Jennifer Allen’s Happy Christmas Mom & Dad (2006) is, superficially, an anomaly amongst the artworks on display at #QC, her current exhibition open at the Kendrew Barn, St. John’s College, Oxford. All other works present are the creations of Allen’s alias, “an ‘exotic’ militant punk persona” called Quilla Constance. In a second room, photographs and paintings hang on the wall, and a sculpture sits at the centre. A third features another video, QC_001, on loop.
In many respects, though, Happy Christmas foreshadows what was to follow. In this early work, the expected roles adopted within a family unit – inscribed upon us at birth – are transgressed. The daughter’s dancing upsets the cultural classification that she is expected to adhere to, but this apparent manifestation of Carl Jung’s Electra complex is one of intention and agency. Quilla Constance, similarly, acts decisively to expose and disrupt systems that have come to settle within society.
Quilla’s paintings function as backdrops to photographs, videos, and live performances, and are central to the fabric of her visual aesthetic. They are worthy of attention in their right, too. The pair displayed here depict ribbons and bows that curl, unfurl and twirl down the canvas, at first glance parted like curtains or gathered together into a valley of colourful cloth. Given time, the vivid greens, pinks, and zebra stripes soon come to resemble other imagery: a frame of tumbling hair for an absent face; the female reproductive system.
The sculpture in the middle of the room, a mound of heaped rags with strands stretching out to grasp a wooden ring, is a jumble of seemingly unrelated items. In the act of reaching beyond the artwork’s border, though, the tattered tentacles seem to be recalling the transgressive thrust of Happy Christmas. The threads remain tied to the wooden structure: is to grapple with a limitation to become necessarily entangled within it, therefore hindering the very prospect of further progress? In this work, as in the video QC_001, more questions are raised than answers given.
QC_001 showers the viewer with a frenetic series of symbols and stereotypes that seek to position black female identities within a culture that favours white men. In an early vignette, Quilla holds a can of Red Stripe in one hand and a brush in the other. Later, boxes of fried chicken and tubes of paint are strewn across a studio floor, quite literally leaving Quilla to navigate between them. Each time the camera pushes a Golliwogg doll in our direction, lingers on Rita Ora’s hairline or dangles a gun in front of our noses, we are confronted with racial and gendered barriers, prejudices, and violence. Powerfully enforced systems and categorisations are shown not to be natural but culturally normalised, and are thrown open to scrutiny here.
Allen shoots huge amounts of footage for each of Quilla’s projects, and it shows. Her work is teeming with ideas that jostle for space, each shouting to be heard. As a result, the most striking moments are those that buck this trend. A screen full of moving QR codes is rendered strangely serene by the accompaniment of a legato solo cello, while a soundless scene in which Quilla sits at a table decked out for afternoon tea is the most memorably wry.
The incongruous humour of a “militant punk” sipping from a teacup is evident and effective, concisely articulating the tensions caused by exaggerated categorisations. It features early in QC_001, though, and appears as a punchline made prematurely. Nothing that follows quite manages to match its immediacy or potency. Allen creates bespoke edits of her works for each new exhibition, an approach in keeping with Quilla’s sprawling maximalism. Perhaps the form of QC_001 could evolve to better match its lurching shifts and the commanding presence of its star?
Quilla and Jennifer Allen clearly have much to say, as well as the means with which to communicate these preoccupations successfully, but this material seems to lend itself to a micro-level medium. Given their abundance and arresting nature, the vignettes seem ripe for compilation into sharp viral vines, packaged up and sent off to loop endlessly and proliferate rapidly on Facebook walls and art gallery walls alike. Such an approach would push #QC further into a world of memes, Twitter handles, and swiftly switching trends, allowing Allen to examine these capitalistic cultural networks – and the structures they help to consolidate – from within.
Jennifer Allen aka Quilla Constance will be giving a live performance in The Barn, St. John’s College, Oxford at 2.30pm on Saturday 16 April.