Fashion is an art. It is hard to come face-to-face with the work of Yinka Shonibare or Alexander McQueen without acknowledging this. Where it gets more difficult is when what we wear goes from being a beautiful object used as a celebration of individual self-expression or simply a necessity to a signifier of even more complicated concepts of beauty, identity and power struggles. Through the work of Aisha Bell, Sheila Bridges, Myra Greene, Marlon Griffith, Krisanne Johnson, Kalup Linzy, Wangechi Mutu, and Ebony G. Patterson, Black Gossamer uses fashion as a point of departure into a conversation that is much more than just fabrics and patterns. Curator Camille Morgan took a moment to tell us more about the artists of the exhibition, fashion’s revolutionary spirit and her response to a recent review of the show.
Tempestt Hazel: The title Black Gossamer suggests a fragile and delicate fabric. Can you break down the meaning behind the title of the exhibition and how it applies to the work in the show? How did you arrive at this title?
Camille Morgan: Due to my background in fashion and the fashion context of the exhibit, I wanted a title that reflected that without being too literal. If one studies fashion, you develop a specialized vocabulary to describe various fabrications. Terms can refer to the title of a fabric and/or express properties of it. I came upon “gossamer” because it is one way to describe a fabrication, but it also means other things…I liked that dynamism. It is also a term you don’t hear often, so even its stability in the language is as precarious as Blackness. The artists in the show, I think, present work that explores this stability (or maybe instability) of black racial identity.
TH: This exhibition includes a great lineup of internationally recognized artists from inside and outside of Chicago. (Kalup Linzy is my sunshine on a cloudy day.) How did you go about selecting this group to be part of the show? Were there other artists who you considered?
CM: Thanks! Yes I was very pleased with the artist participation! I really relied on my background in fashion to help me recognize artworks that were married in some interesting way to fashion, fashion history, textiles, and dress. Fabrications, style and fashion designers/brands have their own unique histories that I was able to pick up on in certain works…you could call it “reading between the threads”! And after I contacted the artist, I was often surprised at how much deeper the fashion connection went. More than one artist in the show has a background in fashion whether they studied fashion design in college or were into costume design, or they simply love to shop!
I also had artists recommended to me by colleagues and researching them often led me to other artists…some of which are in this show. Most research was done online (looking at fashion trends AND contemporary art), but I did visit art galleries, museums and just talked to industry people. Some of the artists I considered were like art world superstars and there was only so much space and resources available. I’d say the majority of the artists were very receptive to the exhibit’s theme and only one (Jeff Sonhouse) declined due to his work on other projects (but expressed strong interest in working with me in the future) and another I never heard back from (Sanford Biggers). By the time I began contacting artists though things were hectic and I didn’t have as much time as I’d wished to seek out more local artists. But since the show has opened I have learned about many more local artists mainly through the, “why didn’t include such and such” line…which while annoying at first (because I hate missed opportunities) has only helped to expand my knowledge of the black Chicago artist scene.
TH: In the description of the exhibition you note that these artists are pulling from or inspired by fashion and textiles to uncover revolutions in Black identity. I often think of a revolution as a disruption of current norms. What, in your opinion, are these artists doing to rattle understandings of Black identity?
CM: It’s funny, with all the protests and things going on in the world, my idea of what a revolution is has altered. I used to think of it as a brand new happening, when it is really more of a power shift. Who controls this shift is what makes it revolutionary. So coming from that place, I think all these artists in their own way have expressed a shift in what blackness is, was, or has the potential to be. These artists (and artists in general) reflect what they see happening around them. I think of their artwork more as a mirror. Take for instance Ebony G. Patterson’s “Christ & Co.” installation. She is reflecting the crazy fashion and beauty culture of Jamaican Dancehall. What you see there is confusing and terrifying yet empowering in a Bizarro world kind of way (especially once you consider the colonial history of the island). What in Dancehall culture has led black Jamaicans to bleach their skin with dangerous chemicals…it’s a one-up-manship on blackness that has nothing to do with trying to attain “white” beauty standards…it has nothing to with white culture. It is all about how extreme you can be. There is this aspect of “light” that you see in her installation and lightening the skin only enhances this, along with the glitter and flash or the whole scene Blackness is so often thought of in terms of Whiteness that this trend is revolutionary…but to who’s detriment?
TH: This exhibition shows instances where art is influenced by fashion. Through the curatorial process have you also run into fashion that is directly influenced by trends in contemporary art?
CM: Yes, I definitely have and I almost wish I could do another exhibit looking at that…maybe along with the artworks! In my research, I have come across more than one designer that has taken directly from contemporary artists to build their collections. Cynthia Rowley, Mark Fast, and Ann Demeulemeester have all created high fashion collections that pull directly from Kara Walker’s shocking shadow artwork. Since this wasn’t my focus, I’d be curious to research more fashion designers that are influenced by contemporary art.
TH: You yourself have a unique and distinct style, which makes it easy for me to see why you are the mind behind Black Gossamer. If you had to choose a piece of clothing, a fabric or pattern to represent you, what would it be?
CM: Thanks again! Hmm…this is hard! I think I would choose the dress. In my mind, it is the perfect outfit because of its simplicity and versatility. It is one garment and you are done! Dressed! Voila! They can be long, short, formal casual, terribly elaborate, strangely shaped, form-fitting…the list goes on and on. I think they are comfy…quick to put on and don’t usually need too much accessorizing. In American culture, men don’t have this option (I guess unless they were to be cool with wearing a onesie). I am a sucker for a great dress. Since I am always running late I need a one-stop garment to speed me along!
TH: After the show opened this past fall there was an interesting review of the show in NewCity called “Selling Hot Drama.” Some pretty strong statements were made about the exhibition. Do you have any thoughts on some of the points that were made about fashion, race theory and how the show was pulled together?
CM: I must admit I was given a disclaimer by a colleague before I began to read the review, however, it still did not prepare me for the very first line: “The best part of bell hooks’ essay ‘Selling Hot Pussy’…” I mean, what? I’ve never even heard of this essay nor read it, so by Foumberg beginning the review this way it makes readers immediately assume that the ideas in that essay were integral to understanding the exhibition, which is just not true. I know exhibits get mixed reviews, but the nature of this one seems so incendiary and misconstrued I am not sure if the writer ever actually viewed the show in person. Maybe he read the catalog, but then he goes on later to misquote a line of text from one of the artist write-ups that completely changes the meaning and therefore helps to support his argument.
He questions my background in the subject matter, noting that I should try to be more historically accurate. He himself did not recognize the obviously African prints in the Aisha Bell piece…hello, Kente Cloth! But if he did a little research he would find out that I have a educational history culminating in a graduate level degree in the history of textiles and dress and a B.S. in Fashion Merchandising. Maybe my immersion in the subject matter is what makes my texts so “dour” as he says. Yes, I agree that fashion is beautiful and can be fun, but when you see Black people in the Caribbean damaging their skin with bleach just to fit into an island subculture, fashion and beauty stop being fun. Also, this instance of bleaching has nothing to do with white culture, and stems from another place completely. I don’t think the writer realizes that not everything that informs black identity has to be viewed through the lens of the white culture (which I imagine is the crux of his problem).
Overall, he seems to be supporting this idea of “post-blackness,” in a sort of “get over it” type way. He even boldly states that “If there was a crisis of ‘the black artist’ it has already been overcome.” I did not hope for this to be the reaction. If a viewer of any race or ethnicity cannot be bothered to take a step outside of his/her reigning ideology, then what is a curator to do? He does, however seem to be enamored with Nick Cave’s soundsuits (which he gleefully points out are not on display in the exhibit). Being black and making artwork with textiles was not the ONLY criteria for being in the show. I know everyone in Chicago seems to love Nick Cave’s works, but I don’t think his popular soundsuits have anything to do with Blackness or black identity. They seem more to fall into the arena of dance, performance, the “fantastic” and phenomenology. That is cool, but not right for this exhibit. If Foumberg had wondered why say, Yinka Shonibare’s works were not on display, that would have made more sense.
I think my exhibit must have bothered the writer in some way. It presented artworks (that he seems to enjoy otherwise) in a way that didn’t necessarily have to be seen through white culture. It’s not always fun when you don’t see yourself reflected back at you. It makes you have to work to understand another point of view. He clearly seems unwilling to view the artworks first and foremost through the guise of fashion. That’s the main way the show is meant to be viewed. If you don’t get that…a lot of typical contemporary art criticism will miss the target.
It seems to me like he just lumped this exhibit into a pile of exhibits that look at race in some manner. This is a pile he doesn’t seem to care for even though by the end of the review he admits to wanting to see more culturally-specific exhibitions.
I think probably when the MCA is showing 90% Black artists AND no one feels the need to point it out, we’ll be in a post-black era. We’ll also be living in an imaginary world as that is not the solution to the black artists’ “crisis”. Until curators and institutions move out of their comfort zone and make a little effort to be more varied and inclusive, these small race theory-related shows will just need to keep happening.
TH: What can people expect from the exhibition’s programming that will happen within the coming weeks?
CM: The exhibition programming has been exciting to create as all the partners have been eager to collaborate and some heated discussions have already come about! The November programs were successful and in February we have an amazing line up of activities too:
Wed., February 1 – 5:00-8:00pm: Closing Reception – African American Heritage Month Kickoff
Gallery tours and refreshments, and a performance/artist talk by Afro-futurist artist, D. Denenge Akpem
Thur., February 9 – 4:00 – 6:00pm: Critical Encounters Cafe Society discussion with Curator
Fri., February 10 – 1:00-3:00pm: Panel Discussion, “What Color is Nude: The Racial Future of Fashion” featuring distinguished fashion history and race theory writers and artists (Krista Thompson of Northwestern University, Monica Miller of Barnard College, and author of Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, and D. Denenge Akpem of Columbia College). Moderated by Columbia College Fashion studies faculty and student.
All talks will be held in the Glass Curtain Gallery or adjacent Conaway Center, which is located at 1104 South Wabash.
Black Gossamer closes on February 11, 2012. For more information, visit the Columbia College Chicago website for the Department of Exhibition and Performance Spaces.