In January 2018, Michelle Williams Gamaker travelled across the pond to Los Angeles, California and reached a new level of obsessive fandom. Dressed in a brown taffeta cocktail dress, Jackie O-style sunglasses and gold sparkly stilettos, she made the trek through the 300-acre Forest Lawn Memorial Park - ‘cemetery to the stars’ - to locate the grave of Indian-born, Hollywood studio era film star Sabu. Despite her efforts to connect with the star, for whom Williams Gamaker has a deep affinity, she was eventually discovered by security and ordered to leave, although not without first putting up a good fight. ‘... it’s just that I’m a distant relative,’ she protested.
If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself in her current exhibition ‘Distant Relative’ now on view at Tintype. There, upon entering the space, you will find a 3-minute video work of the same name, which documents the event. The gallery, like a movie-set, has been staged for spectacle. Bleacher-style seating adorned with elephant print cushions provides the viewing area for ‘The Eternal Return’ (2019), the latest film in her ‘Dissolution’ (2017-2019) trilogy, which has been projected onto a classroom chalkboard. Her prized collection of Sabu paraphernalia is on full display in the alcove of the gallery as part of her installation, ‘Man in Parts (Sabu Ware). Williams Gamaker’s fascination with cinema is evident.
Growing up consuming films, Williams Gamaker was particularly struck by the British film classic ‘Black Narcissus’ (Powell & Pressburger, 1947), which inspired her film trilogy. Having seen ‘Black Narcissus’ as a teenager, the experience marked the first time she encountered characters who looked like her on screen, despite the fact that many of the characters were played by white actors in brown face. Kanchi, the highly-sexualised yet silent dancing school girl, is played by white British starlet Jean Simmons. Sabu, the ‘go-to’ Indian actor throughout the 30s and 40s, also appears in ‘Black Narcissus’.
In Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Mulvey argues that pleasure in cinema is derived first from ‘scopophilia’ or the pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation, and second from narcissism - the identification with the image seen. While Mulvey makes clear that early Hollywood and British cinema was created for the ‘male gaze’, and that the pleasure is lost on (white) women who cannot recognise themselves on screen, what then does that mean for women of colour who are either absent from the screen entirely, forced into stereotyping roles, or played by white women in brown face?
These on-screen injustices have driven Williams Gamaker to pursue what she calls, ‘Fictional Activism’ or ‘the restoration of people of colour who performed in 20C British and Hollywood films’. Her film ‘The Eternal Return’ (2019) follows a disgruntled Sabu towards the end of his career in 1952 as he supports his family by performing with elephants in the premier act of Tom Arnold’s Haringey Circus. Sabu, the son of a mahout (elephant driver), was originally ‘discovered’ by anthropologist filmmaker Robery Flaherty in the 1930s and taken to Hollywood at the age of 12, where he was signed with Universal Pictures. Though he achieved remarkable fame, including a star on Hollywood Blvd, he was typecast into roles that reaffirmed a colonial position and glorified the British Raj. Through her imagining of Sabu’s frustration, Williams Gamaker gives Sabu’s character - played beautifully by Krishna Istha - depth of emotion, something Sabu was consistently denied in the roles that made up his career. With clever interspersing of British Pathé footage from the 1950s of tamed elephants in the circus ring, Williams Gamaker demonstrates how actors in the studio system who were obliged by contract to behave a certain way, to adopt new names and backgrounds and to accept certain roles over others, were similarly exploited.
Through fan fiction of sorts, Williams Gamaker creates a world within the gallery in which Sabu can be seen as a man with agency, emotion and complexity. Just as the auteurs of the studio era made their names through repeatedly working with the same cast of actors and production teams, Williams Gamaker fulfills her own cinematic imagination, played out by a cast of long-term collaborators including actors Catherine Lord and Krishna Istha. Though her world is similarly artificial and constructed, there is pleasure in viewing her work, and it thankfully departs from the white ‘male gaze’.