Art exhibition reclaims fairy tales from Disney and reimagines them for our ‘anxious world’

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Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World

Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell — open through April 27 (Gallery Hours Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.)

“If We Believe In Theory #1,” by Xaviera Simmons. — image courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery

There’s something lurking below the surface in most fairy tales — a stereotype or expectation threatening to shatter the sugar coating.

These unsettling lurkers, including questions about race and gender, come into focus in the traveling art exhibition Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, on display through April 27 at the Faulconer Gallery in Grinnell. The show, organized by Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, features 21 artists’ depictions of seven Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Grinnell is the exhibition’s second stop, and the Faulconer is hosting several events alongside it, including a free gallery talk with one of the featured artists, Natalie Frank, April 8 at 4 p.m. at the Faulconer.

Viewing the exhibition as a conflicted but ultimately loyal Disney fan, I retrod familiar, occasionally uncomfortable territory. Some pieces pointed a finger at my willingness to take delight in the nostalgia of the pop culture fairy-tale lens, rife with blonde, petite, dress-wearing heroines. Although the show focused on European stories, I found myself grasping for the diversity of other cultures’ fairy tales, while acknowledging I know next to nothing about them, challenging my own lens on the subject. Still, other pieces affirmed my appreciation of fairy-tale symbols like a big bad wolf or an inescapable tower that get at more complicated truths.

Curator Emily Stamey, an American art scholar who graduated from Grinnell College in 2001, said the idea for the show came from a place of skepticism.

She said she was “completely baffled” several years ago at the theater when she noticed ads for two different Snow White movies. She couldn’t understand how both drew an audience. From there, she began noticing more and more interpretations of fairy tales, from young adult books to galleries. This forced her to give the stories “a little bit more credence.” She started to seriously wonder about their prevalence in American culture.

“Out of that thinking came the show,” Stamey said.

Now, Stamey views fairy tales as rich stories that grapple with complex ideas and feature characters on the margins who lack power — tales that raise questions about identity in terms of race, gender, ethnicity and economic standing. She said they take on new meaning when we think beyond Disney’s depictions and stop assuming the stories are just for children.

“They’re far more complicated and weird than we give them credit for,” Stamey said.

Walking up to the exhibit, I was immediately drawn to a sculpture by Alison Saar of a black-skinned Rapunzel with bright gold hair, hung upside-down by her ankles. I was mesmerized by the gold, but her apparent, somehow sexualized discomfort made me squirm. The juxtaposition suggested she was trapped in a stereotype, but her black skin pushed the idea further, seeming to point out the importance of intersectional feminism.

Although I read some great twists on fairy tales as a young adult, I can’t say they were much more diverse than the Disney movies I voraciously consumed. I’m tuned into the notion of a blonde princess stereotype because those are the stories I chose for myself. But they were also the ones thrust on me my whole life, from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to Nintendo’s Princess Peach to Barbie princesses to The Princess Bride’s Buttercup. When pop-culture fairy tales exclude non-white, female protagonists, even from stereotyped portrayals, they threaten to exclude non-white women from the wider conversation about these stereotypes.

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Beside the sculpture, an untitled painting by Kerry James Marshall depicts a sleeping or dead Rapunzel surrounded by stars, also with black skin and blonde hair. The woman’s facial features suggest a non-European descent, again raising questions about cultural diversity in popular fairy tales.

Both pieces challenged my most recent thinking on this particular story, which amounted to singing the Tangled soundtrack in the car. If any other culture has its own Rapunzel, I know nothing about her — but I wish I did.

Lesley Wright, director of the Faulconer, said the exhibition also got her thinking about fairy-tale protagonists: how they often lack power but exude unconventional strengths. She said this makes them perfect vehicles for artists telling stories about adversity.

“People continue to go back to them,” she said.

Wright said when Stamey reached out with the idea a few years ago, she knew it wouldn’t simply be “a traditional look at fairy tales.” She trusted it would stir interest among faculty and students at Grinnell.

Wright noted that the exhibition features a wide range of mediums, including photography, video, paintings and sculptures.

“The Ice Queen” by Ana Teresa Fernández. — image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris

Video performance piece “The Ice Queen,” by Ana Teresa Fernández, features a pair of Cinderella slippers made of ice, worn confidently as they melt over a sharp street grate. Stamey’s written description of the art notes that it also references the Mexican folk tale “La Llorona,” in which a weeping ghost wanders the street at night calling out for her lost children.

The piece once again juxtaposed beauty and discomfort for me and brought about a sense of doom. I imagined the ice finally giving out and worried about sharp metal drawing blood from her bare feet. The piece upended the notion of Cinderella’s delicate shoe size, replacing it with an image of femininity that can withstand cold, pain and a long, uncomfortable wait.

In another piece questioning both Disney and misogynistic stereotypes, artist Ghada Amer conveys repeated, idyllic depictions of Snow White alongside images of women from pornographic magazines through acrylic, embroidery, gel and canvas.

“Having all of those different ways of telling a story is very rich for anybody visiting the show,” Wright said.

This variety of mediums accompanied a limited list of fairy tales. Stamey said she aimed for repetition in order to compare and contrast artists’ renderings of the stories. But she let her search for the art and artists determine which Grimms’ fairy tales would make the list, taking note of which stories they referenced again and again.

“I was guided by the artists themselves,” she said.

Holly Thayer, poet and fact finder, is still trying to figure things out. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 260.

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