Published January 16th 2024
By Maggie Trela
Ilana Harris-Babou is an artist from Brooklyn, New York whose sculpture and video installations evoke a sense of the familiar, with a creeping and subtle strangeness. At first things seem ordinary: ceramic, colorful scissors in differing shapes and sizes hung on a wall; beauty tutorials in front of a bathroom mirror; a woman making food; frothy milk bubbling under a microscope. But upon closer inspection, things are not what they seem. The scissors don’t work, the facial scrub is made out of Cheetos, the apples are being mixed with paint and the milky bubbles aren’t milk at all.
Harris-Babou’s creations reveal an impracticality of life. She mimics how aspirational media (like cooking shows, home improvement television and wellness and beauty culture) seduces us to strive for personal optimization – as if we can choose to make the “right” decisions to live a more healthy, full and beautiful life. But then we watch her dismantle and deconstruct the cultural aesthetic, creating a surreal quality that saturates the space and raises into question profound social issues – that not everyone has the same access, the same privilege to “succeed” in this culturally “correct” way of life. Her work leaves us questioning our relationship to culture, to wellness, to healthcare and in her latest exhibits, to motherhood and breastfeeding. Harris-Babou wants us to think about the things that are made for us, and how they therefore make us.
Her most recent work focuses on motherhood, breastfeeding, and breastmilk, which is often referred to as “liquid gold.” Nicknamed for its deep yellow color and richness in nutrients and antibodies, colostrum is the first breastmilk created during pregnancy and right after birth. Harris-Babou riffs on this moniker in her exhibit Liquid Gold, which displays tightly shot video cuts of recordings she created using a macro lens of ingredients used in baby formula and milk substitutes. The end result is a frothy, bubbling, milky substance that dances on the screen in various states of movement. In May 2023, Liquid Gold took over the screens of Times Square for the Midnight Moment program, where every midnight in May, her mesmerizing milk-colored bubbles filled over 90 digital displays in Times Square.
“I started making [Liquid Gold] after I had conversations with my mother and my sister and my niece about their memories in relationship to breastfeeding or their choice to use formula – for some, the experience being empowering and for others not,” says Ilana Harris-Babou. In early 2023, Liquid Gold was shown at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, where the videos were juxtaposed with a ceramic installation that pumped a similarly milky liquid through clear plastic tubing, reminiscent of the pieces and parts used in breast pumps.
Liquid Gold, 2023, installation views, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, Wesleyan University, January 30 to March 5, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
Liquid Gold will be a part of her most recent exhibition, Golden Thread, which will be on display at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM), located on the campus of Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, from January 16 to February 21, 2024. Golden Thread also incorporates the video Let Down Reflex, named after the bodily response technically known as the oxytocin reflex, which happens when a mother begins to nurse her baby. Oxytocin is produced to allow the milk to flow easily from breast to baby, letting down the milk. Let Down Reflex was originally commissioned by the Wellcome Collection, and uses the same intimate shots of Liquid Gold, as well as transparencies of objects that were historically used to assist women with breastfeeding, in which the artist arranges on an overhead light projector.
Let Down Reflex, 2023, video still #1. Commissioned by Wellcome Collection for “Milk” Exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.
The exhibition was inspired by her examinations of Black motherhood and the invisible labor of breastfeeding. In talking to and interviewing relatives about their very personal experiences, she asked them to send her recordings of the lullabies they sang to their children. One lullaby in particular, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” was remixed by British-Irish composer Anna Clock, and plays over the frothing milk substances on the screen. This lullaby is considered to be a song originally sung by enslaved African-American mothers before leaving their own children to take care of their enslaver’s white children. The video score also recites excerpts from Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.”
“Golden Thread comprises video and sculpture that weaves intimate personal narratives, archival and historical references to breastfeeding with the artist’s customary visual acumen, calling attention to both the empowering and challenging experiences of Black motherhood,” says Julie Dickover, Director of CEAM. The exhibit interrogates the complexity of the wellness world, especially in relation to the racialized social structures that inhibit Black mothers from having agency over their health and their babies’ health. It asks you to consider what being a mother means, especially when considering the many barriers that bar Black mothers from having the “ideal” experience as is so often depicted in motherhood culture. Like the staggering rates of Black maternal death in the U.S. medical system, where Black women are three times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy. Research shows maternity wards are less likely to help Black women breastfeed or offer lactation support, where instead staff offer formula, according to the CDC. And Black babies, they suffer an infant mortality rate that more than doubles that of white children.
Let Down Reflex, 2023, video still #7. Commissioned by Wellcome Collection for “Milk” Exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.
Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM) will exhibit Golden Thread from January 16 to February 21, 2024, which includes a First Friday Art Walk. First Friday Art Walk is held on the first Friday of every month in St. Augustine, where more than 25 art galleries invite the public to their latest exhibits. Many featured artists are on hand to discuss their work, including Harris-Babou, who will lead an Artist Walkthrough of the exhibition at 6 p.m. on Friday, February 2, 2024. The gallery will be open that evening from 5 to 8 p.m.
CEAM is a venue that strives to foster knowledge and appreciation of contemporary art for the students at Flagler College as well as the community in Northeast Florida. As both an educational resource and exhibition space, the Museum regularly shows work from regional to international artists, and provides opportunities for engagement with visiting artists. In selecting artists for exhibitions, the Museum aims to challenge their students and the public while providing them with an opportunity to cultivate and consider their own individual creativity, critical reflection, historical consciousness, and respect for the free exchange of ideas. And Harris-Babou’s work does exactly that.
Golden Thread is on view January 16 through February 21, 2024 at Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM), located on Flagler College’s campus at 48 Sevilla Street in downtown St. Augustine, Florida. Museum hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m. CEAM programming is supported in part through grants from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Dr. JoAnn Crisp-Ellert Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, and the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council. Additional sponsorship is provided by VOCO St. Augustine, an IHG Hotel. @crispellertart
Ilana Harris-Babou is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York and Middletown, Connecticut. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Yale University. Her work is interdisciplinary, spanning sculpture, installation, and video, and has been exhibited in solo exhibitions throughout the US and Europe, including current exhibitions Needy Machines at Candice Madey, New York, and Under My Feet at Storefront for Art and Architecture. She has presented solo exhibitions of her work internationally. Institutions include: The Highline, NY (2022), Artspace, New Haven, CT (2022); Kunsthaus Hamburg, Germany (2021); ICA Chattanooga, TN (2021); and The Museum of Arts and Design, NY (2017). Her work has been included in the Istanbul Design Biennial (2020) and The Whitney Biennial (2019). Group exhibitions include The Wellcome Collection in London; California College of the Arts Wattis Institute, San Francisco; The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield among others.
Maggie Trela is a writer and editor living in Tampa, Florida. Originally from St. Augustine, she graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina with a degree in English Literature. She’s worked for higher ed, food and beverage, nonprofits, and online publications. When she’s not working, she enjoys movement, making playlists, and soaking up the sun with her husband Joe and son Sunny.