Bedecked and bejeweled, the figures populating Dress Up, Speak Up occupy fluid space and time, evoking past and present, fact and fiction, memory and desire, to illuminate the complexity of contemporary identity. Whether clad in the stylized garb of Enlightenment-era Europe, the traditional coverings of ancient religious tradition, or the gender-bending bling of popular culture, these representations of self and other role-play in real time, reach back through history to address prevailing personal, social, and political challenges. From Ebony G Patterson’s families, dancers, gangstas, and deceased, to the philosophers, dandies, and faerie conjured by Yinka Shonibare MBE, to portraits derived from allegory, autobiography, and the art canon by Titus Kaphar, Firelei Báez, Berni Searle, Vivek Vilasini, Fahamu Pecou, and others, this pantheon of provocative and prophetic personages are costumed to enact and confront the legacy of embedded experience.
“In order to be heard you have to speak louder,” says Nick Cave, describing the origin of his Soundsuits, an ongoing series the artist conceived as a message of protest against racial violence. “The work came out of the Rodney King [beating] incident in 1992,” says Cave, “I started thinking about what it feels like to be discarded and dismissed.” Crafted from materials ranging from twigs, buttons, beads, and sequins, to synthetic fur, aluminum toys, and found ornaments, the Soundsuits are designed for exhibition and performance—performances in which anonymous, embellished figures choreograph a dance of resistance. “I was making a sculpture first,” recalls Cave, “but once it was developed I physically put it on and moved around in it and it made sound. And when I made that sound, it moved me into a role of protest.”
The finery utilized to dress up and speak up often consists of everyday materials. Raúl de Nieves gathers thousands of plastic beads and other discarded, commercially produced materials to fashion his evocative Somos Monstros [We are Monsters] figure, while Jody Paulsen’s hand-crafted felt collages recall the playful hobbies of childhood, a practice he employs to reveal and explore personal and cultural identity. Wilmer Wilson IV covers his body with “I Voted” stickers to express his struggle to fully participate in this democratic process, and in postage stamps for his performance as Henry Box Brown, an American slave who shipped himself to freedom. Adopting a second skin, both physically and metaphorically, Wilson exchanges his individuality to embody a symbol of struggle for civil rights—to be free, to vote, to be heard. Ravi Agarwal wraps himself like a mummy to protest the environmental destruction and attendant displacement of communities in India, enacting a performance that recalls Hindu funeral rites and asserting that “ecocide is suicide.”
The lace covering Berni Searle’s face and upper body is both decorative and symbolic, recalling ceremonial body ornament and tattoos; her gold hands are not gloved, but painted with metallic leaf, transformed into icons, relics living on a living body. Searle’s Lament images capture the artist’s staging of Shimmer, which she performed in the town hall of Bruges, Belgium, a Gothic building that was elaborately refurbished by King Leopold II, the brutal colonialist ruler of the African Congo (he ordered the severing of hands from colonists who failed to meet his rubber quotas). Adorning herself in lace and gold leaf, Searle inhabits, mourns, and resurrects lost lives, while embodying and expanding symbolic access to the space she occupies: her veiled figure may be a citizen or saint, Muslim or Christian, European or African.
An amalgam of cultural sources animates female portraits by Dominican-born Firelei Báez and Stephanie Syjuco, born in the Philippines. A feathered, multi-patterned headdress dominates the mysterious figure Báez entitles Josephine Judas GOAT (it does not disturb me to accept that there are places where my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes you does not mean I relinquish it). Her skin color is a many-hued mixture that suggests a hybrid, global ethnicity; Báez intentionally invokes the identity and experiences of the African diaspora, referencing Latin American folklore, resistance in 18th-century Louisiana, 1960s Civil Rights struggles, and more. Underneath the highly detailed, ornamental textiles, only her eyes are carefully delineated, challenging the viewer to confront both her mutability and the history of colonialism that has shaped the cultures she now claims and transforms. For her Cargo Cults photographs, Syjuco swaths herself in patterned fabrics from head to toe, posed, studio-style, in interiors covered in still more layers of black and white textiles. The shape-shifting graphics obscure the figure and highlight the designs, which today are associated with “ethnic fashions,” derived from the colonial history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Upon closer inspection, sales tags from shopping mall stores are discernable on the clothing: the massive consumer trade conducted by GAP, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Target, and others now trace the shipping routes our predecessors traveled, many unwillingly. Overlaid on some of these works is a calibration scale, drawing attention to the practice of identifying “neutral grey.” As critic Charles Desmarais notes, “Stephanie Syjuco wants you to know that, physics aside, images are never neutral.”
The legacies of British and European colonialism are illuminated in works by Hew Locke, Jeannette Ehlers, Kudzanai Chiurai, and Yinka Shonibare MBE. Using plastic beads, fake gold chains, medals, toy swords, lengths of artificial ferns, and cowrie shells, Locke alters and obscures a photograph of a statue of King Edward VII that is sited in the historic slave port city of Bristol, England. The cheap plastic embellishments hiding an image of historic power and veneration reference global commerce, the ubiquitous, incessant production and shipment of goods that emerged from the slave trade. Locke’s intervention on this photograph is part of his series Restoration, which explores the visual languages of colonial and post-colonial power and how different cultures fashion identity through symbols of authority, whose own meanings and significance may change over time. As curator Jens Hoffman writes, Locke’s works “not only ironically dissect the pomp and circumstance but …draw insightful parallels between a past colonial history and today’s commercially-oriented national domination.”
The transatlantic slave trade is the subject of Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers’s video, Black Magic At The White House, which addresses the cultural amnesia about Denmark’s participation and profit in the international and domestic slave trade from the 17th through the mid-19th century. In Black Magic At The White House, Ehlers performs a voodoo dance in Marienborg, once the summer residence of Commander Olfert Fischer, who in 1744 sold it to Peter Windt, a sea merchant who earned a great deal of wealth from the slave and sugar trades. While Ehlers’s work highlights the invisibility of the history of slavery in Denmark, the video is also suggestive of the histories of other nations whose wealth was first built by bondage. “The title of this work may even induce one to think of another famous white house,” Ehlers’s studio notes, “one in which a seemingly almost magical political change took place at the time when Ehlers was creating her work as America’s first black president was elected. In that sense, Black Magic At The White House may well address the expulsion of past sins while also taking on current obsessions, conceptions, and representations.”
Kudzanai Chiurai’s theatrically staged multi-media series, We Live in Silence, presents an alternative history that recasts the leader of African black liberation from colonial rule as a woman, challenging the gender bias that traditionally places black males first as the victim of colonization, and subsequently as the heroic liberator of the post-colony. Combining references to religious and cultural rituals with pop-culture imagery, We Live in Silence was conceived as a direct response to Mauritanian filmmaker Mel Hondo’s 1967 drama Soleil Ô, offering a counter-narrative and speaking to the silence that afflicts many in postcolonial Africa. Chiurai explains, “It’s just an alternative to beginning a history lesson. Like if I put those images in your history textbooks and said, ‘okay this is basically how our history has turned out,’ what would you think of your history? And by knowing that what would your decision be later?” These alternatives present women as powerful, opulent liberators enacting a history that places black people in control of both their past and present. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Chiurai was the first black African to earn a BFA from South Africa’s University of Pretoria; his politically engaged art drew threats from his home country, to which he has only recently returned. The multi-media works that comprise both We Live in Silence and Genesis use female protagonists to propose a new image of a post-colonial future. “African nations that fought and won independence from European powers are still being shaped systematically by the colonialist social and political institutions that presently govern in Africa,” says Chiurai. His artworks articulate a profound, provocative resistance to that history by placing black women at the center of a new, global narrative drawn from a wide range of cultural sources.
Hybridity is a hallmark of the art of Yinka Shonibare, MBE, who either omits or obscures the faces of the figures he deploys in contemporary investigations of Western Europe’s cultural legacy. Born in London, then raised in Nigeria before returning to the UK (where he has been named a Member of the Order of the British Empire), Shonibare calls himself a “post-colonial hybrid” in reference to his personal and cultural heritage, and to having been partially paralyzed by illness. The orange-brown hue of Shonibare’s sculpted figures refutes ethnic specificity, and while they resemble 18th- or 19th-century Europeans, the Marquise de Châtelet, Food Faerie, and others embody the cultural hybridity of the contemporary era, their layered identities re-presenting the past. The brightly colored fabrics in which they are clothed are inspired by Dutch wax prints that were originally designed in Indonesia, fabricated in British factories, then exported and sold in England’s West African colonies, where these garments later came to signify African identity. Colonialism and its aftermath have shaped much of the globe, as well as its inhabitants; Shonibare re-examines the philosophy and politics of the Enlightenment, which fostered the expansion of empire. His winged Food Faerie, for example, carries African mangoes, appearing as an angel of bounty whose harvest may generate fortune or famine in different corners of an increasingly interdependent world. The title’s spelling references Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century epic, The Faerie Queen, penned in homage to Elizabeth I, whose legacy of ambition for empire continues to shape lives long after her reign.
Inspired both by street life and scholarship, Kehinde Wiley combines references of police mug shots, 18th- & 19th-century portraiture, and the poses and gestures of European Old Masters to create his monumental portraits of African-American youth. His painting, Morpheus, recasts the stereotypical figure of the female “courtesan” featured in European masterworks by Goya, Titian, and Manet, as a young man in casual streetwear, lounging as the Roman god of dreams. The man’s languid, yet powerful form is surrounded by flowers and interwoven back into the canon of Western art. In Support the Rural Population and Serve 500 Million Peasants, Wiley references a series of propaganda circulated by the Mao Zedong’s Communist Chinese government in 1965. The posters were a call to young people to be trained as medical workers, known as barefoot doctors, which would travel to countryside villages and provide healthcare to rural citizens.
New facts, fictions, and fissures in history are revealed in works by Frohawk Two Feathers, and Titus Kaphar. Two Feathers’ I Haven’t Thought About My Own Reward. I Didn’t Come Here On My Own Accord. 1792 depicts an 18th-century conscript in the style of 19th-century folk art portraiture, while including references to the imaginary nations the artist often invokes, re-drawing aspects of familiar historical tales in images that subvert established or expected power structures. Though history is written by the victorious, those narratives are filled with gaps, its illustrated narration in art incomplete. “I’ve come to realize that all reproduction, all depiction, is fiction—it’s simply a question of to what degree,” says Kaphar, whose practice is rooted in the excavation of the past to illuminate the present.
Inspired by art history, Kaphar’s works have been described as “reconstructive histories.” He cuts, bends, sculpts, and mixes the work of Renaissance and Colonial-era painters, creating formal games and new tales, between fact and fiction to uncover the legacy of historical, cultural, and personal erasure. Describing Covered by Fear, Draped in Loss, the artist observes: “Much of black history recorded in Western art is summarized visually by three roles: enslaved, in servitude, or impoverished. The works in this series look beyond the limited social order to personify a people of dignity and strength, whose survival is nothing less than miraculous.” Kaphar’s subversion of conventional representation is, he says, an attempt “to address the negligence of historical patrons and artists who valued African American subjects little beyond caricatures or props…I think my childhood and upbringing had less to do with my desire to reconstruct history than the undergraduate curriculum of my art history education. What seemed to be obvious oversights in the canon were regularly understated, suppressed, or ignored.” Kaphar addresses his own oversights in An Icon For Destiny, which features a female subject, and references traditional religious iconography and the popularity of the name “Destiny” in African American culture, to invent a new patron saint. This mixed media painting combining oil and tar is an extension of Kaphar’s portrait series The Jerome Project, which depicts incarcerated African American men, portions of whose features are obscured by tar, in proportion to their jail terms. After discovering his father Jerome’s mug shot on the internet, Kaphar discovered hundreds of subjects with the same name, all behind bars, all represented by the uniform mug shot aesthetic, which he transforms into an iconographic narration of the persistence of injustice.
The marginalized populate many of Ebony G Patterson’s lush and layered figure-laden tableaux, which map the contemporary spectacle of identity, both celebrated and hidden. Like Kaphar, Patterson mines art history, transforming Medieval tapestry and Renaissance portraiture into dizzyingly vibrant and embellished mixed media. Adorned in bright hues and sparkling sequins, her subjects—perhaps like the figures within Cave’s Soundsuits—combine material allure with articulate critique. “My ongoing body of work explores constructions of the masculine within popular culture – while using Jamaican dancehall culture as platform for this discourse,” explains the artist. “The early work looked at the fashionable practice of skin bleaching, followed by investigations of so-called ‘bling culture’ and its relationship to the masculine within an urban context. While still making references to dancehall culture, my work raises larger questions about beauty, gender ideals, and constructs of masculinity within so called ‘popular black’ culture. It examines the similarities and differences between ‘camp aesthetics’ – the use of feminine gendered adornment – in the construct of the urban masculine within popular culture.” A recent series of work, entitled unearthing treez, depicts murder victims as sourced through social media, embellished to seduce viewers into witnessing the underreported brutality experienced by those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. While removed from the glitter of nightlife, Patterson’s recent imagery still dazzles; found among the reeds—Dead Treez features handmade women’s platform shoes beneath an embellished and appliqued tapestry (in which a portion of a male body lies prone) whose contours recall a map of United States. Underneath the foliage and bright hues, the material allure delineates a cartography of brutal beauty.
Memory and mourning are woven into fabric in Dinh Q. Lê’s series honoring the victims of the Khmer Rouge, murdered in Cambodia. The images are taken from interrogation photographs and embroidered onto cloth; their features will emerge over time, as oil and dust accrete on the surface. “Viewers will be invited to touch the embroidered threads,” says the artist, “The images will become more articulated and visible over time, comparable to the shiny textures found on bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.” Lê left his native Vietnam as a young war refugee; his artworks—woven photographs, embroidered canvases, video, and installation—resurrect and remember, on a personal and public scale. Like the anonymous figures camouflaged in Ebony G Patterson’s Dead Treez, the shadowy outlines Lê’s Texture of Memory slowly reveal themselves, denying history’s erasure, and reminding us to remember.
The poetic lines incorporated into the title of Fahamu Pecou’s Breathe articulate the artist’s transformation of tragedy into transcendence. One of a series entitled grav*i*ty, which the artist describes as “addressing both contemporary and lingering concerns around race and society using the trend of saggin’ as an allegory for the tensions that emerge in the identity, performance, and visibility of black men.” Here, the young man wearing the loose layers of pants associated with saggin’ is bent over but not broken, his body weary, yet graceful and strong, seemingly floating in space. The title makes intentional reference to the phrase “We Can’t Breathe,” which was repeated in protest after Eric Garner’s death in police custody in 2015. Pecou says he seeks to “change the phrase from a plea of desperation to one of affirmation,” to re-present his subject as beatific, a glowing, iconographic figure, an image of ascension.
“It is the idea of leaving the weight of the world,” says Jefferson Pinder, describing his film, Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise). Inspired by a vast array of visual and aural sources including NASA footage and Civil Rights protests from the 1960s, Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, poet Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, Pinder stitched together over 2,000 still and moving images to create this work. The news and film reels are projected onto the artist’s face and neck, which he has carefully coated in thick white paint, evoking Japanese Butoh theater. “I was drawn to its protest sensibilities and how it emerged out of post-WWII, postatomic rebels to create these ghosts, these people that have these amazing physical qualities that almost survived outside the body,” explains the artist. Pinder’s Afrofuturist vision follows the protagonist into space and to a dramatic ending, when, as in the myth of Icarus, a fiery explosion sends him hurtling back to earth. Critic Faedra C. Carpenter writes, “The final moments of this performance video do not echo the utopian vision of the Civil Rights movement, but rather the grim reality of smoldering smoke and a figure that is still standing after a turbulent ride.” Pinder employs his face as a white canvas to both reflect and project the ongoing impact of racism—presented here as embedded in his skin—and to enact aspirations for transcendence. Fantasy and history bear equal weight in Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise), as the artist is narrating his own reality, asserting “the freedom to liberate [himself] from an identity based upon someone else’s interpretations.” As Titus Kaphar observes, “In the absence of adequate facts, our hearts rifle through memories, foraging satisfactory fictions.” For those who inherit a legacy of resisting cultural erasure, telling untold tales—lived, remembered, or imagined—remains vital.
– Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator