Shawné Michaelain Holloway’s work foregrounds the presence of power in our most intimate spaces and everyday lives: in our beds, in our bodies, in our communities, and behind our screens. The Chicago-based artist, who studied at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons Paris, composes artworks using new media, including videos, digital publications, software, performances, installations, sound, cell phone photos, social media pages, and GIFs. In these works, sexuality is not a covert theme disguised through symbols, but rather an overt subject, visible (and audible) as bodies, moans, sexts, and fluids.
By addressing power and sexuality using digital media, Holloway suggests that shame, pain, control, and desire don’t flow in one direction, but are networked and rhizomatic. Her works feature long titles formatted like file names: _.DEVICEPLAY(trust and touch, care and reflection, [a study of denial]), 2018, or a_personal_project, IV: password protected thaumatrope, security measures for a caged bird.mov (2014). Her engagement with the digital also refutes the discreteness of individual works. For instance, Holloway’s “The Chamber Series” (2017–), a veritable panorama of her practice, includes performance, film, digital publication, and audience interaction. The series is organized around “scores” to be followed and performed. A book is installed on a low plinth, and vinyl text instructs viewers to kneel in order to read. Puppy play, a BDSM practice in which some humans act like puppies in need of training and discipline from others, is the jumping-off point for this series. Its myriad components create a dizzying sequence, in which small acts aggregate into a complex narrative about control.
Holloway is keenly aware that every audience member submits, if only temporarily, to the artist’s point of view. At the same time, the audience is also, in a sense, a voyeur. In a personal project (2012–), which was included in the exhibition “On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work” at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art last winter, Holloway edited videos and photographs she originally made for the amateur porn website Xtube into a glitchy, but not illegible video. On her website, she describes her time on Xtube as part of a social experiment, an investigation into power dynamics. She writes, “I use these people online just as much as they’re using me,” highlighting how sex can often be transactional even when no money is exchanged.
Underneath the fantastic BDSM accoutrements—ropes, knives, mirrors, collars, speculums, and other toys—visible in works like daughter of the cage (2017) lie serious communal questions. How do trust and consent distinguish pleasurable pain from harm or subjugation? To what extent do Black people have the ability to give consent when we are still living with the legacy of slavery? What does it mean to be a top when domination is the modus operandi of state violence? Holloway insists that her interest in BDSM has “nothing to do with vestigial slave mentalities or low self-esteem,” and she made this distinction clear in her aptly titled 2017 solo show at Sorbus in Helsinki: “Sub Not Slave.” She consistently prods at the gaps in power between owning and being owned, giving and taking, dominating and submitting, playing and being played.