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Obehi Janice’s Casanova Turns The White Male Gaze On Its Head

Obehi Janice comedy roast at the MFA upends the white male gaze (Courtesy Nina Gallant)MoreCloseclosemore
Obehi Janice comedy roast at the MFA upends the white male gaze (Courtesy Nina Gallant)

When Obehi Janice first learned about the Casanova exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Lowell native was far from impressed. “I hate it,” Janice told WBUR. She said her critique of the MFA's exhibition comes from a place of love for museums and also a belief in the importance of proclaiming when an exhibit does not speak to you — when it is not made for you.

The MFA battled internally with a parallel point of contention during the installation of the Casanova exhibit earlier this year. How does an institution display works and art, all tied to an 18th century womanizer and rapist, while still looking at his life and exploits in a critical light? “The exhibition itself is gorgeous,” Kristen Hoskins, curator of lectures at the MFA, said. “But the idea of it being through the lens of somebody that we’re not comfortable endorsing. We had to figure out how to present this work in a different way.”

The MFA reached out to Janice about programming a performance around the Casanova exhibit and she initially told them no — she wasn’t too keen on giving the 18th century womanizer any more attention or spotlight. But after a discussion with her collaborator Max Esposito and ongoing conversation with Hoskins, she warmed up to the idea of using her art to tackle Casanova in a different way. “It became less about me hating it,” she admitted. “And more about, how can we be more critical?” And so, the idea for examining Casanova through her singular lens was born.

As a Nigerian- American woman, Janice’s interpretations and criticisms of money, sex and power will look quite different from Casanova’s. Furthermore, her voice is one that is often left out of the conversation in places like the MFA. “We need to have different voices at the table,” Hoskins pointed out. “You walk through the halls of the exhibition and it’s very clear whose in there and who isn’t.”

Janice’s production is an opportunity for the MFA to include a voice of dissent from a millennial black woman saying the encyclopedic museum's programming of Casanova does not resonate with her and is not important to her. “This will be the first time that this kind of programming will be done at the MFA. It’s kind of like a pilot,” Janice said.

Giacomo Casanova is venerated by history and popular culture alike, for his exploits, travel writings and autobiographies, which describe life and society of 18th century Europe in great detail. His name has become synonymous with seduction and womanizing and is still invoked to this day to describe a smooth-talking man. But Casanova’s infamy is lost on Janice. “When I discovered what kind of man he really was, I was angry,” she said. “I felt like I’d been duped my entire life. Will I say he’s interesting? Yes. But I don’t see him as remarkable.”

Many historians and art institutions disagree with Janice. Casanova’s autobiography, valued at around $9 million, is one of the lengthiest ever recorded in human history and provides a point of entry into the study of the 18th century. He did, after all, meet with some of the leading historical figures of his time, including Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire and King Charles III of Spain.

He also admitted to raping a woman.

Along with collaborators Esposito, Michelle Villada, Nina Gallant, Misha Shields, Steve Sarro and MICHA, Janice produced a show that will turn the traditional rhetoric surrounding the historic figure on its head. Instead of venerating Casanova, this performance is a criticism of both the famed womanizer and the MFA itself, as an institution. “It’s a comedy roast, it’s a critique,” Janice explained. “And I think it’s very important for museums to understand their power and to be open to critique of power, because that’s what this show is.”

Like the exhibit, the show will highlight and criticize the intersections of sex, money and power but from a black femme perspective. “This is about being seen,” Janice elaborated. “It’s important to feel seen. And I think that’s what a lot of underrepresented people are asking for."

Obehi Janice rehearsing for "Obehi Janice: Casanova" at the MFA (Alberto Montalvo for WBUR)
Obehi Janice rehearsing for "Obehi Janice: Casanova" at the MFA (Alberto Montalvo for WBUR)

From the music to the choreography to the fashion, each piece of “Obehi Janice: Casanova” is purposefully crafted to break down the Eurocentric narrative so prevalent in institutions and to shift some of that power to marginalized stories.

The physical movements of the show, choreographed by Shields, bolster the underlying themes of Black bodies unabashedly taking up space while having autonomy over sexuality. The extravagant costume design is a commentary on social strata. “In Casanova’s time, clothing was a reflection of someone’s social status and he talks explicitly about using clothing to move through these different societal realms,” Villada, the costume designer for the show, said.

Janice’s signature red, velvet dress was created with this same purposeful intent. “Red was a man’s color,” Villada pointed out. “So to dress Obehi in this elaborate, red dress is a big statement, it’s a way to re-translate a power suit.”

At the core of the show is the critique of money and power and how that impacts which narratives are written into history. “Somebody pumped money into this three museum collaboration to have Casanova’s perspective on display,” Janice said. “I’m interested, as an artist, to explore what that means about patronage and curation and how that’s political.”

The MFA is eager as well to take a deeper dive into what this means, as an institution that has such a heavy influence over art and culture. "We have to be open, as an institution, to holding ourselves accountable for the work that we feature," Hoskins said. “Obehi’s performance and performances like this are a way we can do that.”

Cultural criticisms aside, the audience can expect to laugh and to have time to reflect on Casanova so that they can draw their final conclusions for themselves. They can also expect to leave with questions. Comedy, to Janice, is an inherently important vehicle to begin critical discussion. "I want this to be an enjoyable jumping off point. I hope its a way for the audience to begin, if they haven’t already, to think critically about sex, race and politics."

Related:

Arielle Gray Arts Fellow
Arielle Gray is a reporting fellow for The ARTery, WBUR’s arts and culture team.

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