Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s exhibition, Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life, on view through December 3, documents Black women’s relationship with fashion — the cultural tendency to not simply think of it as a way of dress, but a determinant of a way of life.
Comprised of artworks by 20 black female artists, the exhibition explores how fashion informs the vitality of Black women throughout the African Diaspora from a global perspective. The various paintings, photography, sculpture, and video range from architecturally influenced dress designs to paper recreations of 17th-century European dresses.
Many of the artworks are curated to relate how convention inspires Black women’s spirit and the major role that dress plays in that. Traditional, timeless, cultural dress often identifies a person’s role and stations within their environments. For many years, the dominant culture dictated that Black people’s attire be not of their inherent stature or history, but of their modified position within the dominant culture in the United States and around the world. Africans throughout the Diaspora had their cultural dress stripped from them. Instead of having the privilege to wear their traditional dress, Black slaves were relegated to wearing rags. This disruption of cultural dress left African peoples around the world unidentifiable or seemingly anonymous.
Hence the importance of this exhibition. Using fashion as the entry point, Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life asserts how Black women have reclaimed fashion or clothing as a mode of expression. Although the efforts of Black clothing companies to enter into the fashion arena have not been totally ignored by the Black or mainstream populations, the most successful designers are still of Western culture. The efforts made by Black women to elevate their status in the fashion arena, as evidenced by artists like Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, inform us that fashion plays a major role in the lives of African-American women. The results of such conversations allow us to see African women throughout the Diaspora relay their biases about fashion in a creative way. And in turn, these conversations allow the world to view the African female experience as a thing of value. As the artists in Africa Forecast are “fashioning their lived experience through art,” each artist’s experience is ultimately unique to her. Through the diversity in this exhibition, innumerable stories are narrated. Some depict hardship, others celebrate beauty, while a few simply exhibit skill in thought and imagination.
Vanessa German’s sculptures tell stories using dolls and miniature objects that together create their own unified negrobilia, which speak to the delicate nature of Black female existence. The Story of American Pictures (2013) allows us to understand how heavy the Black woman’s burden can be. In this sculpture, German’s female figure is bogged down by trinkets and stands at the very edge of a block as if she is going to fall over from the weight or fly away from it in glory. Gun violence, drug corruption and pressures to stay fashionable and fly are illustrated with miniature items including guns, birds and buttons that are placed on the female figure’s shoulders, arms, and dress.
Not all of the artworks in the exhibition directly confront adversity. The space itself is uplifting and triumphant. A wall collage of street photography by Joana Choumali welcomes the viewers. Each block of the street photography collage encapsulates a moment in time in the life of those captured, many of them looking directly at the camera and smiling, and in a way telling of the lived experience of the artist. Their smiles welcome the visitors of the museum. The entryway into the gallery space is opulent. The walls of the entry to the gallery are hot pink with the names of all of the artists included in the exhibition that alerts viewers to the radical feminine ideals they will encounter upon entrance to the gallery space. This hallway guides the visitor directly to Lina Iris Viktor’s Constellations I, II, and III. Viktor’s black and gold artwork is placed against a fittingly regal purple wall. Once inside the gallery, and on either side, are the meticulously painted artworks of Firelei Báez whose technique masterfully depicts fibers in an almost realistic capacity. Walls covered in hot pink, bright yellow, and fluorescent green paint serve as the perfect backdrop, as they complement the colors in the paintings, photography, sculpture, and dresses. The brightness of the space alludes to the optimism inherent in an exhibition of this scope — one that addresses grim history and confronts its future with boldness.
Fabiola Jean-Louis’ exquisite photographic portraits are a particular highlight of the exhibition. Jean-Louis’ portraits contrive the eye into imagining they are portrait paintings and not Photoshop altered photography. Under Jean-Louis’ gaze, the dresses, which are actually made of paper, lose their crispness. The perceived softness of the textures adds to the opulence of the settings and the placement of the models within the portraits are reminiscent of the Victorian era. The photographs transport the viewer to another time. But Jean-Louis, in her series of photographs, Rewriting History, picture Black women in 17th-century European fashions, which astounds the mind’s eye with thoughts of a dreaded time. The time we are called to is a time when Black women were not typically able to don such garb. On close inspection, the shrouded messages Jean-Louis imbeds in each one of the photographs communicates details of atrocities taking place during the era of these fashions, horrific actions; some of which are still taking place today.
In line with the characteristics of traditional dress, fashion is an identity indicator. Despite the disruption of cultural identities that were defined by cultural dress, Black women have taken back the reigns in regard to fashion. On Spelman’s campus and sites throughout the African Diaspora, Millennials are defying fashion conventions to create terms of their own. Major publications like The New York Times are printing photographs of the Afropunk scene that emerged at many festivals in the United States and abroad. So although African-American female designers like Tracy Reese and June Ambrose have clothing lines in major retailers, young Black girls are going in another direction, away from the conservative and traditional representations of fashion available to them. Black women today are proclaiming their own beauty standards and demanding recognition and appreciation. An exhibition like Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life allows for a collective group of voices of women throughout the African Diaspora to initiate discourse surrounding fashion in regards to Black women.