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Harold Offeh

Similarly, a persona also takes shape in Being Mammy, one of Offeh's most recent works. The impetus for Being Mammy was an invitation to work from an archive for moving image, commissioned by Picture This, a Bristol arts agency for moving image work. He selected the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, particularly for its uniqueness as a moving image archive. The Centre holds memorabilia and ephemera from cinema culture, not just film reels. As an object-based archive, Offeh's resulting work, Being Mammy, responded to the wealth of stuff about Hattie McDaniel, a black American Oscar-winning actress (the first African American to be nominated for and the first to win an Academy Award). McDaniel was most famed for her portrayal of Mammy, Scarlet O'Hara's housekeeper, in Gone with the Wind.

As a cultural icon, McDaniel's life and career was full of paradoxes--at the Academy Award ceremony at which she won for Best Supporting Actress, she had to sit alone at the back of the Coconut Grove (where the Awards were being held) because she was black; thousands of mourners gathered to remember her accomplishments when she died in 1952, yet the owner of the Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard wouldn't allow her to be buried there (again, because she was black); and while she had a popular radio show in Los Angeles in her early career, she still had to work as a maid because her salary was so low. It was this paradox in particular that led to her famous, and often quoted line: 'Why should I complain about making seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one.' Her sentiments summed up the paradox black American performers were caught within, whereby the only roles they could obtain, were ones portraying servants, maids, or other such supporting (and cliched) characters. Criticised by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and some sections of the black community, McDaniel also broke down barriers for black performers in the entertainment industry as a vanguard in her field.

It's this irony that drew Offeh to question McDaniel's cultural position and make it the subject of Being Mammy: that is, her perpetuation of stereotypes in order to get work or advance her own career. McDaniel's 'Mammy' character developed a cult-like following. Many of the objects in the archive are made by McDaniel's fans as gestures to her role, and subsequently to her role's iconic status. Despite McDaniel not being a good cook, fans assumed McDaniel was 'Mammy' and wrote to her requesting her fried chicken recipes. So, out of a feeling of obligation, she'd make up a recipe and supply it to her fans.

In Offeh's Being Mammy, he adopts the character of McDaniel playing Mammy, thereby unravelling and critiquing the layers of stereotype in Mammy, and all that she embodies. With a silent soundtrack, Offeh performs the facial gestures that personify the caricature of 'Mammy': shaking a head knowingly, with pursed lips and batted eyelashes; staring wide-eyed and in surprise at the camera; pouting with a furrowed brow. Spot-lit and played-back to the audience at high speed, the video calls attention to the automatic actions by which we can recognise the character type. With Offeh dressed in a blue house dress, white apron, and white head wrap, he makes a convincing housekeeper, and his skilful embodiment of the character allows him to drive home his point. Offeh's intention being to highlight the artifice of Mammy in particular and all stereotypical characters in general. While it's a particular slice of cinema history that makes up the context of Being Mammy, Offeh's own engagement with the role highlights his skill as a character actor. Video in Being Mammy isn't a medium to document the work, but inherently links the form with the content.

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