“The tone of the show is supposed to be colorful and I wanted to invite people in as opposed to pushing people away,” Camille Morgan, curator of the Black Gossamer show at Glass Curtain Gallery, explains. Walking into the exhibition, a visitor is greeted by wide open space, white walls splashed with bright yellows, purples and blues – glitter, textiles, and fabrics – radiating from the various artwork. The atmosphere of the arrangement is fun and psychedelic, but the pieces definitely showcase complicated undertones regarding some social, economic, and historical commentaries. “As you get closer to thinking about the artwork,” Morgan says. “You would see that there’s something more complex underneath that you may or may not find controversial.”
One would think fashion is a subject that is the least controversial – outside of that dress that’s too skimpy, those jeans that sag too low, or that informal outfit at a bow tie event. But to take the concept of fashion, take it away from what some might call the trivial environment of the red carpet or runway, and view it in terms of culture makes the subject more than what’s laying around in someone’s closet. The Black Gossamer show says loud and clear that fashion is like a picture, in and of itself. Holding a shirt, an accessory, or a fabric can tell just as many stories as a picture with a thousand words. The value of fashion is something that Camille Morgan has held close to her heart throughout all of her studies in art history and design. “There’s the underlying element of fashion where people don’t often times want to take it seriously on an academic level,” she says. “But it kind of lives throughout everything we do – everyday – even if you don’t want to recognize or think it’s valuable. But there are also many fashion academics like myself that write about it in a critical way, so I thought if I’m going to curate a show my ‘thing’ will always be connected to fashion.”
Walking in the door, the viewer is first greeted with a black and white photography piece by Krisanne Johnson. This is the same piece featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. As a purposeful placement choice by Morgan, the photograph sets the tone for many themes throughout the entire show. Displaying young African American adults in designer clothes, the pictures seem to take the perspective of a fly on the wall, capturing a candid party atmosphere. Though the photography style might remind viewers of an advertisement spread one would find in VIBE magazine (which in fact, does speak to consumerism – a shared theme throughout the show), the artwork does invite people to analyze what connection fashion has in black culture and what clothes mean in regards to status, popularity, and stereotypes. In fact, Morgan encountered a visitor who thought that the young people in the photo were doing illegal drugs, perhaps glorifying the practice, when in fact they were smoking hookah. However, what is it about the photos that made this person jump to that conclusion? Like the rest of the show, these works pose an open-ended question and leaves it to the viewer to come up with their own answers.
Next to the photography is an installation by Aisha Bell that – on surface level – seems to depict all the different faces, characteristics, personalities, or moods women (and not just limited to black women) chose to “put on” and wear. With the use of colors and fabric, the work speaks directly to how important clothing is in regards to identity. Morgan explains, “Even though people are like ‘Just because I’m wearing it doesn’t mean that’s who I am.’ Well then who are you? Why are you wearing it? There is some reason behind that.” Likewise, there is a reason why each fabric is placed on that installation – they tell a story. Bell has put a name to almost all of the fabrics, for instance, there is a “club dress” fabric. When talking to Bell, Morgan discovered that Bell found a very stretchy, light bright pink, almost velvety fabric at a shop. Someone came up to Bell and asked what she thought about using it for formal wear. There, the point was made – there’s a fabric for everyone, any time, for every personality, and it’s always rooted in identity.
Next is Christ & Co. (Gonzales’ Christ Revised and Extended) by Ebony G. Patterson, an installation that takes the space of an entire room. Shrines depict a dense representation of the culture of Dancehall, a form of music popular in Jamaica that borrows from both dance and reggae. But just like hip hop, fashion plays an important part in the culture and the more flashy, the more outrageous, the more daring – the better. The glitter, lights, candles, and textures make the room very busy, and one might compare it to being in the heart of Las Vegas – a somewhat condensed hyperactive space depicting what some might call consumerism, American culture. What’s interesting about this piece is the religious connotation – containing a slow, hymn playing in the background, and Jesus-like symbolism in its epicenter. The song, however, is not about religion, but about a popular shoe brand within Dancehall culture. Accessory and products adorn the shelves, with everything from jewelry to creams for skin bleaching – a practice also popular in that culture. Contrary to what most might think, for many the practice isn’t an attempt to imitate “whiteness” or express dissatisfaction with who they are – it is a way to be the most extreme. Much like extreme sports or wearing the highest heels known to man, the most outrageous is often respected and rewarded with attention.
This piece speaks in dialogue with Wangechi Mutu’s Pin-Up series very well, which depict images of African American “pin up” girls with grotesque deformities such as alligator tails, exaggerated body parts, and missing limbs. One might view such pieces as a commentary on the African American body image, but there’s another perspective – especially in regards to how disturbingly close the use of plastic surgery in contemporary society comes to creating such images off the canvas, and not just in African American culture. “I wanted to look at a part of a culture, specifically black culture, in a way that was not focused on comparing it or viewing it through white culture,” Morgan says. “In my head these artists are really looking at black culture…not necessarily being ideas bounced off of something else, like white culture.” In fact, these artists successfully raise many questions about cross-cultural issues. How far will “extreme” fashion go in our society? Is this really only the product of something connected with African American’s relations with white culture or is it something more universal?
The Black Gossamer exhibit gives a tunnel vision snapshot of African American culture through the eyes of fashion and at the same time, expands the viewer’s peripheral vision about individual identity not necessarily connected to African American culture. It shows how effective fashion can be as an unspoken language, just like a picture or photograph. “Weaving is one of the oldest practices that humans have ever done…to clothe yourself, it’s very basic.” Morgan says, also getting to the very raw, simple, and yet still complicated statement of the exhibition. “People have a lot of fun with [fashion] now but I think it says a lot about identity.”
You can see the show for yourself until February 11th at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery.