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I Don't Get It

Aleesa Cohene

Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography (Toronto), The Rooms (St. John’s) and The Western Front (Vancouver)


Co-commissioned by Gallery 44, The Rooms and The Western Front, I Don’t Get It is a complex and layered body of work by Aleesa Cohene.


Through a two-channel video and a series of sculptures and photographs Cohene exposes how whiteness, as a fundamental category of belonging, is never not at play.


I Don’t Get It centres around Cohene’s videos Whoa (1) and Whoa (2). The video presents two composite characters using clips from over 500 contemporary Hollywood films dating from 9/11 to November 9, 2016 (11/9). The source materials used to construct the film’s characters were assembled from a list of films that have been specifically discussed in terms of race on various Reddit and BuzzFeed discussion groups. The narrative of the videos follows two neighbours living in the same apartment building in Los Angeles and whose strained relationship is meant to point to various tensions around race, gender and representation. The sculptures and photographs throughout the exhibition reference the video’s allegorical narrative and point to various objects and events within the borrowed film clips.


“At turns tense, embarrassing and enraging, the work is a canny depiction of white supremacy at work, rendered as readily through inaction and silence as through the exchange itself. Cohene reflects these tensions in the structure of the work itself: the complexity of the composite she is able to generate for the white woman—the breadth of source material, the gestures available to her—notably outpaces the black character, underscoring the gross disparities in the way black and white bodies are captured on film and, by extension, writ into the cultural imaginary.

It shouldn’t be lost on the viewer that this scene is built in part using footage from white saviour narratives, in which white characters’ messianic actions serve not only to lift up characters of colour, but to permit their own personal growth and discovery. The scripts for white fulfillment and racialized gratitude these stories establish are both ubiquitous and aphoristic, Cohene reminds us, to say nothing of destructive.”

– Matthew Hyland, Director, Oakville Galleries, excerpt from essay entitled Something Better from the exhibition catalogue


“The frames Cohene isolates during pre-production often cut out instances where a person of colour may be interacting with a white character. What remains is a response or gesture without an intermediary or target—this responsibility is shifted to the viewer, who, as Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and others have suggested, is presumed white or is located in the affective constellation of white supremacy and its production. Cohene thus creates a feedback loop of meta-whiteness (and often femininity) that in its constant circulation reveals its problematic nature and dispenses with its desirability.”

– Jamillah James, Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), excerpt from essay entitled Characters in Search of an Exit: Whiteness and the Work of Aleesa Cohene from the exhibition catalogue

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