Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s current exhibition, Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life, presents a small but dynamic assemblage of twenty designers and artists who blur the line between fine art and fashion from across the globe. Co-curated by Spelman Museum’s own Dr. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Dr. Erika Dalya Massaquoi to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the institution, this exhibition embodies the curatorial commitments that have guided the museum since its beginning: namely, the promotion and support of art by women of the African diaspora. By complicating and expanding the often-unheard narratives of this international community of artists, Africa Forecast communicates the historical and political potency of self-fashioning through and beyond the frame of the garment. Met by mannequins as well as video, photography, painting, and sculpture, viewers encounter a constellation of rich and diverse material practices that push beyond a mere display of aesthetic achievement. In foregrounding fashion as a tool of individual expression and visibility, Africa Forecast confronts a range of institutional biases regarding the display of fashion in a museum setting and encourages a rethinking of the objectification and self-presentation of Black women.
The recent financial and critical success of fashion exhibitions in world-class museums—such as Alexander McQueen’s retrospective Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011 and The Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945–2014 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014—has changed the conversation in regards to the role of clothing and textiles as objects of social and cultural significance, negating the institutional biases that pitch fashion as a commercially driven (and thus, lesser) genre of making. Africa Forecast continues these museological debates, but draws the conversation away from questions of high versus low in order to point to the power and historical resonance of clothing and craft. Thus, many of the artists in the exhibition deliberately blur the line between fashion and the fine arts to highlight such implications.
Through her sumptuous images of Black women costumed in beautifully crafted and delicate paper garments, the Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist, designer, and photographer Fabiola Jean-Louis invites viewers to rethink the production of an image and acknowledge the ways in which European power has shaped narratives of beauty and Black history. In Amina (2016), Jean-Louis intervenes in the privileged, gendered conditions of European portraits by photographing her subject adorned, resplendent, and confident in the clothes of her oppressor—puncturing the ideological art history of the objectified woman. With a stage-like setting and highly produced effects, a bejeweled recess sits in the center of this meticulously crafted gown, revealing the limp form of an anonymous Black body hung from the thin branches of a tree. The colorful three-dimensionality of the vignette oscillates uncomfortably between whimsical illusion and disturbing reality—a wound hidden in plain sight, and thus a possible response to the current and historical effects of state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies.
Billie Zangawa’s shimmering tapestry made from raw silk cuttings, The Dreamer (2016), engages with the history of quilting and handiwork as a vehicle for storytelling as well as the history of two-dimensional picture building in painting and photography. Hung on the flat surface of the gallery wall, the image reveals a woman alone, caught by the viewer in a state of reverie (or perhaps unconsciousness) in a vast field of wild flora. As our eyes scan the vulnerable, solitary body of the figure, the work presents a critique of the powerful gaze at work. Zangawa’s image lays bare the politics and fantasies of looking at Black (female) bodies as exotic, controllable property.
Based between Johannesburg, New York, and Paris, Ayana V. Jackson extends this exhibition’s conversation regarding the complexities involved in the representation of Black women by restaging and deconstructing photographic images culled from African photographic archives. As author, subject, and editor of this series of images, Jackson unpacks the ways in which colonial subjects have historically been the subject of inquiry and examination by picking up the camera herself in order to become the architect of her own story. In Jackson’s Aina (2016), the author shifts from Ayana to Aina, portraying herself as the 19th-century West African Yoruba royal Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies, who later became goddaughter to Queen Victoria of England. (“Aina” was Bonetta’s original Yoruba name.) Dressed in a simple white muslin dress typical of the Victorian style, Jackson’s body is enveloped in a weightless void of white, her arms raised in an ambiguous pose of complete free fall or solemn prayer. Responding to the vast field of anonymous, unprotected Black subjects that structure the history of photography and anthropology, Jackson rewrites and refashions her own body by performing the classifications, categories, and tropes that plague the representational discourse of people of color. By critiquing through creation, Jackson’s images embody the spirit of Spelman’s exhibition by intervening in the sphere of the objectified gaze, and opening up a space for the Black women to write, revise, and fashion their own stories.
Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life will be on view at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia, through December 16, 2016.