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Michael Paul Britto: Dirrrty Harriet Tubman
Michael Paul Britto, Dirrrty Harriet Tubman, 2005, digital video, single channel, length: 5 minutes, 5 seconds. Courtesy of the artist.

ST. LOUIS, MO.- The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is pleased to present two recent single channel video works by Michael Paul Britto as our Contemporary Project Series 2006. The works will be on view through December 31, 2006.

The first work is a funny and irreverent action-movie trailer entitled Dirrrty Harriet Tubman that presents a unique re-imaging of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman as a blaxploitation super heroine. Contrary to the most common, indelible image of an aged Harriet Tubman from our culture imagination—a maternal stateswoman, a gentle Grandmother—Britto’s Tubman is re-imaged as a youthful, agile, and strong Pam Grier-like character that is ready to free her people and take-back-the-night as her perilous trips are reenacted in a contemporary setting wherein nothing deters this fearless Underground Railroad conductor. Britto is interested in looking at the past and reevaluating historical circumstance with a humorous corrective lens, in an immediately recognizable and accessible format. Aware of the recent revival of interest in cinema and 1970s culture, particularly interest in the proliferation of action and Kung-fu B movies, Britto acknowledges the influence of a genre that largely disappeared into obscurity in the 1980s. While textbooks may tell us about Tubman’s legendary accomplishments that altered the course of American history, Britto adds another dynamic layer to the women who brought freedom to so many— that she was also young. Co-opting the tropes of blaxploitation by bestowing Tubman with persona that matches her revolutionary actions, Britto presents to his generation an identifiably legend. Just as the films that provide source material for Britto’s work generated a huge poster industry, he likewise has created a drama-filled poster to accompany his trailer. This comical trailer and poster calls attention to a continuing struggle for freedom and self determination that is still evident even among a post 80s generation.

The second work, I’m A Slave 4 U presents a Britney Spears music video that is completely recast with black actors wearing 19th century slave costumes. Staged in a theater, Britto reworks the choreography to create a dance sequence based on common slave practices like domestic chores and picking cotton. The exaggerated gestures and movements of the dancers work to enhance Spears’ lyrical content and effectually renders her portrayal of herself as hot-for-you, sex-slave, absurd. Replacing Britney Spears is a fully clothed, gun-wielding Tubman who, as the central character, animates plantation labor set to a seductive soundtrack as a way to examine the internal complexities of race in a non-confrontational way.

In both of these works, Britto manipulates popular culture to elicit various feelings of rage, happiness, sadness, and empathy by provoking viewers to rethink how the mass media perpetuates racial and gender stereotypes. Britto uses humor to examine the discourse of black icons from a wide range of subject positions and perspectives. He uses the poster, movie trailer, and music video format as a platform to twist particular histories into compelling visual narratives that conflate truth in order to challenge perception.

Britto lives and works in New York and received his BA in Media and Communication Arts at The City College of New York in 1999. He has been included in the group exhibitions: AIM 26, Bronx Museum, New York; Black Panther Rank & File, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; S- Files, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, San Juan & El Museo del Barrio, New York; and Frequency, Studio Museum of Harlem, New York.

Michael Paul Britto will discuss his work on November 16, 2006 at 7:00 pm at the Contemporary. The Contemporary Project Series introduces current work by emerging and established artists that is experimental in nature. Michael Paul Britto: Dirrrty Harriet Tubman is organized by Shannon Fitzgerald, Chief Curator, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

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