The Boundaries Between: Fashioning in “Beyond Fashion”

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In “The Boundaries Between: Fashioning in Beyond Fashion,” Shani Roper (Liberty Hall) writes about the National Gallery of Jamaica’s exhibition Beyond Fashion, which is on view until February 24, 2019. [See previous post Beyond Fashion Extended.] Here are excerpts from the full review: 

National Gallery’s exhibition Beyond Fashion is a dialogue about the boundaries – the boundaries between fashion, fashioning and social commentary– and what it means to challenge, push against, and blur these boundaries. The exhibition begins by locating the works within a historic context of the European distinction between art and the decorative arts. It then challenges this premise by positioning this boundary as pliable and unnecessary.

My engagement with this exhibit is shaped by the work culture at National Gallery’s sister department, Liberty Hall: the Legacy of Marcus Garvey. We start first with an Afro-centered consciousness which seeks to destabilize and undermine legacies of colonialism by encouraging a positive sense of self and Africa. [. . .] As I toured the exhibition, I became convinced that this particular European value need not be engaged at all, as many of the artists continuously respond to a post-independence and neo-colonial global community. [. . .]

As we walk through the galleries, the pieces and installations requires us to open up ourselves and question if we truly see ourselves as social actors contributing, maintaining and disrupting class boundaries and upending gender relations. Phillip Thomas’ work “Pimpers Paradise the Terra Nova Nights Edition (2018) shows how fashion can function as tool/weapon of differentiation, subordination and re-colonisation.

Dispersed throughout the background of the piece are images of plantation society, racial subordination and wealth, while in the foreground are the contemporary signatures of wealth of the upwardly mobile. In Thomas’ work, fashion operates as a signifier of class, economic mobility, subordination, and social alienation. Pimpers Paradise reminisces on the ways we continue to hold on to historic symbols of wealth which in turn rely on socio-economic subordination thus reinforcing social and economic power today. [. . .]

In the traditional western museum, objects and art are held out of reach of the audience in the name of conservation and preservation. Kerina Chang Fatt’s Scrapes and Bruises (2007) and In Search of Silence I and II (2007) draws us in for reflection, engagement and touch. Scrapes and Bruises invokes thoughts such as loss of innocence, an awakening, death, violence and the burden of past hurts. It brought to mind the violence that pervades our Jamaican society and the crucifixion of innocence and childhood.  In Search of Silence I & II demands a delicate touch and quiet consideration of values integral to sustaining one’s emotional health and also that of relationships. [. . .]

Bearing in mind the range of ideas engaged throughout this exhibit the initial premise under which the discussion began was to challenge the historic European distinction between “fine art” and “decorative art.” O’Neil Lawrence, the curator, argues that Beyond Fashion seeks to take its viewers on a journey looking at the areas where the lines between fashion and art and the work of the artist and the artisan are blurred (Beyond Fashion Catalogue, 2018 pg 6). Yet as one walks through the gallery it becomes clear that this historic European distinction does not reflect the conversations that each work engaged nor was it central to artists participating in the first artist talk held December 15, 2018.

[. . .] What would it mean if we began the discussion about the boundaries between the decorative and fine arts not from a European perspective but rather from an African perspective? In this case, such a discussion would require a defining of African-ness and or how we imagine African-ness. Defining African-ness is essential given the cultural diversity of the African continent as well as the diaspora. Many of us in the diaspora lack any direct connection, for example visits, so we “curate” African-ness through our cultural retentions and information about the continent. What we do know is that Afro-grounded peoples resist Europeanization in a variety of ways, such as developing a materiality of African-ness through dress and accessories, an embracing of African spirituality and a vocabulary that centres a positive sense of an African self. This is also a timely discussion given the initial resistance of former colonial powers – Britain, France and Germany – to return items (including human remains) that were stolen from the continent. Very often, this resistance has been grounded in the narrative that African nations and other former colonial possessions lack the infrastructure to care (meaning conserve and preserve) for the items, thus reinforcing European values to art and material culture which were forcibly removed from their true use. While they have bowed to pressure, as in the case of Germany, we are still forced to ask, are we enslaved to the values of the western museum as formerly colonized peoples? Is it possible for us to create a curatorial practice that does not rely on the traditional museum space?

[. . .]  Back to Beyond Fashion…as I continue to find myself thinking of Fatt’s cocooning In Search of Silence the pieces here entice us to a physical engagement with art on the issues of gender, class, and nature. However, I would have liked to see something, whether in text or otherwise, that spoke to the ways in which a Jamaican artistic practice challenged the audience’s interaction with art or even the development of the traditional gallery space. This I believe would open discussions for consumers around why we collect art, how  we exhibit art and what are the interventions that art makes in post independent and neo-colonial spaces.

Full article available from (TBA). [Photo above: Pimper’s Paradise, the Terra Nova Edition (2008).]

One thought on “The Boundaries Between: Fashioning in “Beyond Fashion”

  1. Brillant assecesment of the premise and intentions of this Exhibition. The insites are to the point. Especially the missed opportunity for exploring Africaness and consumerism as the root of the division of Fashion and high art. Congrats Shani great review.

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