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 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 adorned to confront, transform, and redefine cultural visibility.
“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. Paulsen expands his narrative into a call to action in Find Your Gaggle, a monumental group portrait celebrating queer experience, relationships, and community. Childhood play also inspired Beverly McIver’s Doll paintings. The pigtailed toy featured in these self-portraits emerged from memory: once a plaything that comforted and entertained her, the doll now serves as metaphor and material for the artist—an image that both represents McIver’s identity, and acts as a protective talisman, helping the artist to resist self-doubt.
In his photographic self-portraits Wilmer Wilson IV enacts and performs resistance: he 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.
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 each 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 Anglo-European colonialism and the need for new monuments that reflect the traumas and erased histories are illuminated in works by Jeannette Ehlers, Kudzanai Chiurai, Jeffrey Gibson, Athi-Patra Ruga, and Kehinde Wiley. 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. 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. 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.
“American history is longer, larger, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”: this quote from writer James Baldwin is featured in a 2015 wall hanging by Jeffrey Gibson. A Native American artist of Cherokee and Choctaw heritage, Gibson’s recent work explores the material histories and futures of several Indigenous handcraft techniques and aesthetics, including Southeastern river cane basket weaving, Algonquian birch bark biting, and porcupine quillwork. The helmet sculptures included here were created for a 2019 exhibition at New York’s New Museum, entitled “The Anthropophagic Effect.” The phrase is derived from Oswald de Andrade’s legendary 1928 Anthropophagic Manifesto, which argued that indigenous communities could “devour” colonizers’ culture as a way to resist and radically transform Western culture. Describing his work as inspired by practices that have long predated the arrival of colonizers on the American continent, the artist says “I engage materials and techniques as strategies to describe a contemporary narrative that addresses the past in order to place oneself in the present and to begin new potential trajectories for the future.” The future Gibson envisions is one that honors and celebrates the complexity of both cultural and personal identity. The garment on view is inspired by the regalia associated with the Ghost Dance, a 19th-century Native American practice conceived as a resistance to white domination; its bright palette also refers to queer club culture, thus making visible another community that has historically been oppressed.
Gibson, along with Paulsen, Ruga, and Wiley, utilize dress and performance to embody and celebrate the fluidity of sexual identity, resisting the definition and representation of gender as binary. Describing his regal portraits of black men and women, Wiley says, “Ultimately, what I’m doing is jacking history. I’m emptying out the original. It’s almost a type of drag in a way.” Inspired both by street life and scholarship, the artist combines references to police mug shots, 18th- and 19th-century portraiture, and the poses and gestures of European Old Masters. His monumental painting, Morpheus, recasts the stereotypical figure of Olympia, 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 leaves, woven into the canvas and interwoven back into the canon of Western art. Earlier versions of Olympia were intended for an intimate audience; Wiley thoroughly reinvents his subject and challenges canonical artistic convention by redefining elements of Classical mythology and European painting in a transformative vision of erotic black male identity.
Created in homage to an early 20th-century icon of queer culture, Athi-Patra Ruga’s Proposed Model of François Benga Monument belongs to the artist’s pantheon of heroes and queens that reflect African beauty and resistance. François “Féral” Benga (1906-1957) was a renowned Senegalese dancer who performed alongside Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergère in Paris, and in New York, became a muse and model for many artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The son of a wealthy landowner in Dakar, Benga was disinherited as a teenager, and after his death, largely forgotten. Ruga resurrects the performer’s legacy with this larger than life-size figure covered in flowers and jewels, mounted and lit onstage: a glimmering monument to an influential artist that responds to—and may reframe—the prevailing presence of historical monuments to colonialism and apartheid.
New facts, fictions, and fissures in history are revealed in works by Frohawk Two Feathers, Bisa Butler, 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. Bisa Butler’s group portrait, Three Kings, is based on photographs of WWII-era farm workers taken by the Farm Security Administration as part of a New Deal agency created to address rural poverty. Butler uses colorful fabrics to narrate new stories, weaving together a long, rich tradition of African American quilting with old and new fabrics to present layered, multifaceted tales of resilience. Working like a painter, Butler combines colors and patterns in her textiles to create complex, compelling imagery that pays homage to her subjects’ strengths and vulnerability, to their pain and their power.
Responding to the racism inherent to Western art history, Titus Kaphar 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. “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’s An Icon For Destiny, references both traditional religious iconography and the popularity of the name “Destiny” in African American culture, to invent a new patron saint, a black female deity, worthy of reverence. 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. Regally crowned in gold, Destiny’s entire body is rendered in swirls of dark tar, simultaneously exposing and honoring the legacy of suffering and erasure borne by generations of black women.
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 to illuminate who and what are visible and not in postcolonial culture. 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. Referring to Brella Krew from the Fambily Series, Patterson says, “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.”
While removed from the glitter of nightlife, Patterson’s recent imagery still dazzles, while revealing the underreported brutality and cruel invisibility experienced by communities that are marginalized or ignored. Woven, embroidered, or appliquéd on textiles displayed on walls and floors are clothes, shoes, toys, and other personal objects; the bodies of their owners are missing, and the viewer is now a witness to their anonymous demise and disappearance. The tragic narrative suggested by Lily, carnation, rose budz is that of a child’s death, perhaps a drive-by shooting; atop the bright pastel appliqué dotted with pearls and other embellishments is a little girl’s tricycle; the small body that fell from it has left only traces of her brief life, now camouflaged into the flowery patterns woven into a fabric garden underfoot. Danger and beauty, life and loss, all lurk within Patterson’s garden tableaux, alluding to both current violence and historical erasure. The palette and title of this particular work echo John Singer Sargent’s 1885 painting Lily, Carnation, Lily, Rose, an idealized image of Victorian girlhood set in an English garden; Patterson’s evocation of Sargent’s iconic work offers a poetic, poignant critique of who is valued and visible in life and in art, and illuminates the role that representation plays in perpetuating or challenging systemic discrimination.
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