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Vol. LXIII, No. 7
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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Britney Spears Video Joins Harriet Tubman Trailer in Michael Paul Britto’s Arts Council Conversation

Dilshanie Perera

Michael Paul Britto’s video work deals with representation, race, and the way history can be appropriated. In a public conversation last Thursday with Arts Council Curator of Exhibitions E. Carmen Ramos, Mr. Britto spoke about his work currently on display and the inspiration for his art.

Two related pieces, Dirrrty Harriet Tubman, a trailer for an imagined movie about Harriet Tubman’s life, and “I’m a Slave 4 U,” a music video for Britney Spears’s song by the same name, play on a loop in the third floor video lounge, and were screened prior to the conversation.

The videos interpretively recount episodes in Harriet Tubman’s life, juxtaposing historical facts and humor to convey the image of Ms. Tubman as a real person instead of a purely mythic figure. Shot in the style of Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, the pieces were written, produced, directed, and choreographed by Mr. Britto.

Ms. Ramos noted that she enjoyed the work because of its humor, and its presentation of the truth. For instance, when Ms. Tubman was most active in the Underground Railroad, she was 29 years old; the Harriet of the film is a similarly young actor.

Additionally, Ms. Tubman used to carry a gun in order to protect herself, and also to threaten slaves who were tired or who wanted to turn back. “Dirrrty Harriet” also brandishes such a weapon, and is portrayed as strong, unafraid, sexual, and commanding, an unconventional depiction of the historical Tubman.

After noting that reactions to his work are divided along generational lines, Mr. Britto said that most young people find the videos compelling, and an engaging and provocative way to understand Harriet Tubman, while most older people dislike the work or find it disrespectful.

Mr. Britto likes people to ask themselves why they might be upset by his work, which has inspired numerous conversations. He described how audience members both young and old started talking about the piece after one showing: “Maybe the older people walked away and understood the younger people a bit more, and vice versa, and maybe Harriet Tubman facilitated that.”

The idea of Dirrrty Harriet emerged from a movie poster project where an abolitionist is depicted as a Blaxploitation film character. Wanting to “use someone people can identify with,” Mr. Britto selected Ms. Tubman, and soon realized that he wanted to create a movie trailer in a similar style.

Assembling the cast, choreographing, filming and editing the piece was a whirlwind, according to Mr. Britto, who finished the video in three weeks using his home as part of the stage for the shoot (including his bathtub).

“Regarding the way I work, when things affect me, I mull them over, and they reappear in certain moments,” Mr. Britto explained. When he first heard Britney Spears sing “I’m a Slave 4 U,” he recalled thinking, “Something about this just is not working.”

Thus, while the cast for his movie trailer assembled, Mr. Britto decided to choreograph a performance and film it as a music video set to Ms. Spears’s song.

Assessing public reaction to the work at the Arts Council, Ms. Ramos explained that “a lot of people feel uncomfortable with it. There is some concern about sexuality, the representation of black women, and some discomfort in presenting this version of slavery.”

Confiding that he doesn’t set out to offend people, Mr. Britto said, “My work comes out of my reaction to things that affect me.” Having worked in commercial production, Mr. Britto left the field after being troubled by the racist and sexist overtones in advertising. He now lives and works as an arts educator in New York City.

Regarding the length of the pieces, which have a running time of five minutes and six and a half minutes for the trailer and music video, respectively, Mr. Britto said, “You have to present work this way nowadays,” adding that “if you want people to walk away with something, you have to make your point quickly and get it out there.”

Dealing with similar themes of race, history, social context, and popular culture, Mr. Britto’s most recent work involves performance and sculpture.

The popularity of Dirrrty Harriet Tubman sent Mr. Britto around the world to galleries that showed his work. He acknowledged, “In a way, she freed me. I got to go to Warsaw, and London, and all of these places because of Harriet Tubman.”

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