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Exhibitions

Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation

Showing at 21c Durham On display from September 2016 - July 2017
About the Exhibition

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 M.B.E., to portraits derived from allegory, autobiography, and the art canon by Titus Kaphar, 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. 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 living along a polluted stretch of the Ganges, now slated for development. Agarwal’s work recalls Hindu funeral rites, aligning his performance with both sacred transformation and with the assertion 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.

Hybridity is a hallmark of the art of Yinka Shonibare, M.B.E., 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 in his Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters series, and in these two sculptures. The photographs are inspired by Goya’s 18th-century critique of Spanish rule, and by Shakespeare’s description of the magician Prospero. Says the artist, “as the part-man, part beast character of Caliban in The Tempest was empowered through poetic language, but never fully gained his freedom from Prospero, so the Enlightenment thinkers who caused civilization to flourish also burdened its members with the desire to conquer.” One such thinker was Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise de Châtelet, whose translation and commentary on Isaac Newton’s Principa Mathematica remains the standard in France. Shonibare gives her a prosthetic hand—a reference to her perceived handicap as a female intellectual, and to the price of European and English dominance paid by the colonized, and justified by the “Age of Reason” philosophy. The winged Food Faerie 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.

New facts, fictions, and fissures in history are revealed in works by Stacey Lynn Waddell, 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 neoclassical painting presents a dark skinned boy holding a parasol over a white adult, whose body is covered in muslin, save for a hand; the implied power structure of the relationship suggests that fear and loss are shared by both, but it is the larger figure whose identity is hidden, whose story is now erased. This subversion of traditional representation is Kaphar’s attempt “to address the negligence of historical patrons and artists who valued African American subjects little beyond caricatures or props.” History, like politics, is personal; the legacy of oppression, injustice, negligence, and loss constitutes not just a cultural, but a psychic inheritance. As critic Grant Kester writes, “psychic life in itself will not be relegated to the private, it will not stay in its proper place. It shows up on the side of the historical reality.” Our individual and collective memories are inextricably fused: as Kaphar reimagines scenes from American history, his own relationships and experiences seep in, and out, in his art. The boy in the painting is the artist’s son; using him as physical reference for the piece, the artist paints not only a story of suppressed histories but also one of family tragedy that furthers this theme of loss and reclamation.

The catalyst for Kaphar’s practice, however, was art history: “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,” he says. Kaphar addresses his own oversights in An Icon For Destiny, which features a female subject, and references traditional religious iconography and the ubiquitous nature of the name “Destiny” in African American culture to invent a new patron saint to add to the lexicon. This mixed media painting combining oil and tar is an extension of Kaphar’s portrait series The Jerome Project, in which he says his “omission of the female population in the initial research mirrors the general negligence of society at large.” The male portraits in The Jerome Project feature 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 began researching the American criminal justice system, and found 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 intersection of the personal and political (alluding to the history of American slavery through the use of tar), and articulating the persistence of injustice and loss wrought by inequality in this pantheon of the forgotten.

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. “My work seeks to measure the masculine by looking at how popular culture has contributed to these transformations. 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. This body of work raises questions about body politics, performance of gender, gender and beauty, beauty and stereotyping, race and beauty, and body and ritual.”

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. “Over the past two or three years I’ve been collecting images via social media…of people {who} have died violently,” she says. “There is this distance; we now only experience the world through a screen that separates us from the reality. The catch-22 is that if we didn’t have social media, these people—these invisibles—would not be visible.” 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. “Referring to notions of gender and identity as masquerade,” says the artist, “the result of this choice has made the work more decorative, decadent, iconic, and confrontational.”

Patterson’s deconstruction of gender reveals the persistence of stereotyping, sexism, and the relationship between crime and technology. Examining who we are through who we were is the central confrontation animating the exhibition, from the shared public stage of history to the most intimate narratives on display. Nathalia Edenmont casts models in dramatic scenes recreating or alluding to traumatic events in her own life, enacting a catharsis through her art. André Leon Gray and Beverly McIver revive and repurpose the accouterments of childhood to examine how identity is both shaped and revealed through the objects we acquire, use, discard, and cherish. Gray’s assemblage charts the Great Expectations of the artist’s youth, and alludes to the activities and obstacles he encountered. The pigtailed doll featured in McIver’s Doll series 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 represents an extension or projection of McIver’s identity, whose own face appears alongside that of her alter ego in Past Tense.

A shroud-like garment covers Mariú Palacios’s Mujer de Blanco, which resurrects a tragedy both personal and political: the figure is intended to depict the mistress of the artist’s great great granduncle, Enrique Palacios, a Peruvian military leader killed in the war between Chile and Peru (1879-1883). The artist seeks to examine her personal history as a way of connecting with her fractured relationship to her native Peru, a country divided by terrorism in the years of her youth. Palacios chose to look at her family’s war own hero and examine what it meant to be both hero and human. Based on a rumored affair that Enrique Palacios had while he was in New Orleans (to purchase a warship), the artist invented a love story from which she found her inspiration for this series, Heroína en Construcción (Heroine in Construction). While no documents exist of the affair, Palacios reflects on the sadness that this anonymous woman might have suffered upon hearing the news of her lover’s death. In this photograph, Palacios covers the woman in a while linen sheet, typical of that era, creating an image symbolic of grief, death, and hidden identity.

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 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. The title makes intentional reference to the phrase “We Can’t Breathe,” which was repeated in protest after Eric Garner’s death in policy custody last year. Pecou says he seeks to “change the phrase from a plea of desperation to one of affirmation,” to re-present his subject as beatific, an image aligned with the iconographic, worthy of remembrance and veneration. Antoine Williams pays similar homage to another such victim of police brutality in For Freddie Gray, whose subject is also depicted as wearing the “saggin’” style, and bent at the waist in a pose of self-protection, disguise, or escape. Both Williams’ and Pecou’s works utilize contemporary urban streetwear as a costume in which to confront, challenge, and inspire.

Addressing how discrimination and injustice have shaped both identity and its artistic representation, the artists featured in Dress Up, Speak Up adopt and adapt a broad range historical sources. Reimagining, restaging, re-performing iconographic imagery from Renaissance painting to present-day media, their works expose the gaps and fissures in both art and history, illuminating the mutable nature of personal and collective memory. “In the absence of adequate facts,” says Titus Kapharour 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

Ravi Agarwal (Indian)
Immersion, Emergence, 2006-2007
Photographs

Daphne Arthur (Venezuelan)
Break-Point, 2012
Paint, glitter and smoke on paper

Untitled (woman with child), 2011
Smoke on paper

Nick Cave (American)
Soundsuit, 2007
Found beaded and sequined garments

Nathalia Edenmont (Ukrainian)
Black Night, 2008
Chromogenic print

Sacrifice, 2009
Chromogenic print

Gaela Erwin (American)
Self-Portrait as Mater Dolorosa (Martyr Series), 2003
Oil on panels

Lalla Essaydi (Moroccan)
Converging Territories #14, 2004
Chromogenic print

Lamya Gargash (Emirati)
Salim, 2005
Matte photographic print

Anthony Goicolea (American)
Dissection Diptych, 2007
Chromogenic prints

Sleeping, 2007
Chromogenic print

The Tin Drum, 2006
Chromogenic print

Triptych, 2006
Chromogenic print

André Leon Gray (American)
Great Expectations (get free), 2008
Mixed media
Courtesy of the Artist

Bae Joonsung (Korean)
The Costume of Painter – F. Hayez, 2006
Lenticular

Titus Kaphar (American)
An Icon for Destiny, 2015
Tar and oil on canvas

Covered by Fear, Draped in Loss, 2015
Oil and mixed media on canvas

Dinh Q. Lê (Vietnamese)
Texture of Memory #9, 2000
Hand embroidery on cloth

Texture of Memory #15, 2000
Hand embroidery on cloth

Beverly McIver (American)
Doll Baby, 2016
Oil on canvas

Hello, 2016
Oil on canvas

Past Tense, 2016
Oil on canvas

Erwin Olaf (Dutch)
Portrait 1 (Dawn), 2009
Lambda print

Portrait 1 (Dusk), 2009
Gelatin silver print

Mariú Palacios (Peruvian)
Mujer de Blanco, 2015
Digital photograph on cotton paper

Ebony G Patterson (Jamaican)
found among the reeds-Dead Treez, 2015
Mixed media jacquard weave tapestry with handmade shoes and 100 knitted leaves

Gully Godz in Conversations Revised I, II, and III, 2010
Wallpaper, fake flowers, bedazzled shoes, cinder blocks and hand-embellished photo tapestries

Untitled, from the “of 72” Series, 2011
Mixed media tapestry

Entourage from the Fambily series, 2010
Digital print on nylon with metal grommets and wallpaper
Courtesy of the Artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

Excerpt from Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014, in collaboration with Michelle Serioux
Three-channel HD video
Courtesy of the Artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

Shrubz, 2014
Hand-embellished jacquard woven tapestry with fabric flowers and hand-embellished plastic guns
Courtesy of the Artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

Untitled (Blingas I from the series Gangstas for Life), 2008
Acrylic, glitter, and mixed media on hand-cut paper
Courtesy of the Artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

Untitled (Blingas II from the series Gangstas for Life), 2008
Acrylic, glitter, and mixed media on hand-cut paper
Courtesy of the Artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago

Fahamu Pecou (American)
Breathe, 2015
Acrylic and oil stick on canvas

Berni Searle (South African)
Lament II, 2011
Pigment ink on photo rag

Lament III, 2011
Pigment ink on photo rag

Quentin Shih (Chinese)
Shanghai Dreamers No. 3, 2010
Chromogenic print

Stranger in a Glass Box, 2008
Chromogenic print

Yinka Shonibare M.B.E. (British-Nigerian)
Dorian Gray, 2001
Black and white resin prints, one digital Lambda print

Food Faerie, 2010
Mannequin, cotton, leather, artificial fruit, fiberglass, feathers on wood pedestal

The Age of Enlightenment – Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, 2008
Life-size fiberglass mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton, mixed media

The Masked Ball, 2004
High-definition digital video, running time 32:00 minutes

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America), 2008
Chromogenic print

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Europe), 2008
Chromogenic print

Patrick Smith (American)
Ellen, 2010
Acrylic on canvas

Islam, 2010
Acrylic on canvas

Methamphetamine, 2010
Acrylic on canvas

Drew Tal (Israeli)
Porcelain Promises, 2009
Prints mounted on aluminum

Frohawk Two Feathers (American)
I Haven’t Thought About My Own Reward. I Didn’t Really Come Here on My Own Accord. 1792, 2012
Acrylic, ink, coffee, tea on paper

Vivek Vilasini (Indian)
Last Supper – Gaza, 2008
KS inks on archival canvas

Antoine Williams (American)
(For Freddie Gray), 2016
Wheat-paste, wood, seat belt straps, plastic on sheet-rock
Courtesy of the Artist

Wilmer Wilson IV (American)
Self-Portrait as a Model Citizen, 2012
Pigment print

Self-Portrait as Henry Box Brown, 2012
Pigment print on cotton paper

Untitled (Back), 2012-2014
Pigment print