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Documentary or Reality TV? Pilsen Artist Blurs Lines for Family Story

Rashayla Marie Brown, a self-described “chameleon” and interdisciplinary artist, turns identity into art.

Photo: Leonard Suryajaya

When I meet Rashayla Marie Brown at the Art Institute of Chicago one May afternoon, she’s clad in a trench coat, a fedora, and leopard-print pants—a getup that puts her equally undercover and on display. Brown, an interdisciplinary artist, tells me she wants to visit an early sculpture of the Buddhist deity Guanyin in the museum’s grand hall. “Some people think Buddha was really a black man,” she says. “I come here when I’m feeling frustrated, to change my energy.”

The notion of identity—how we define it and where we perform it—lies at the heart of Brown’s work, which won her a grant from the prestigious 3Arts foundation in 2015. A self-described chameleon, the Pilsen artist often stars in her own photographs and videos. Wearing a variety of wigs and costumes, Brown transforms from a Yale-trained scholar (she graduated from the school in 2004) in one image to a blaxploitation vixen in another. “Everyone deals with being racialized and gendered,” says Brown. “When I put a wig on, I don’t act different, but people treat me differently.”

Brown calls her work an “ethnographic” exploration of race and gender stereotypes. Part of her curiosity stems from her nomadic childhood. “I have moved 24 times,” says Brown, the daughter of a military man. “I never had enough time to make friends, so I became observant.”

In July, Brown will premiere Reality Is Not Good Enough, a video piece about her family that was shot like a documentary but edited in the heightened style of a reality TV show, as commentary on the popular television trope. “There are not enough representations of complex black families,” says Brown. “This is a way to tell a real story.”

GO:Reality Is Not Good Enough opens July 15 at Aspect/Ratio, 119 N. Peoria St. Free. aspectratioprojects.com

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