art creative economy inspiration Metropolitan Museum of Art Studio Museum Harlem

Who, What, Wear/Impossible Conversations

During my visit to New York this past June, two shows that made my heart sing – Impossible Conversations at the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Who, What, Wear, art from the permanent collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Both shows deal with style and self-expression. Impossible Conversations is built around a ‘conversation’ between Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli. It interrogates and celebrates the two designers’ work. As women creators with a feminist bent, they brought a new perspective on fashion. They developed their own language of beauty. Prada made ugly cool and chic. They both represent self-expression and authenticity against a cultural din that seeks to impose definitions on women.

Schiaparelli’s work is bold at times, with a focus on the upper body whilst Prada’s skirts and shoes celebrate the lower body. In one of the re-enactments in the exhibition’s film, this difference is discussed by the women. 

Other points of divergence relate to the role of art in the women’s design practice. Schiaparelli collaborated with artists and her work was heavily influenced by Surrealism. Prada resists the idea of fashion as art. It seems to go against all her instincts.

Lolo Veleko. Sibu VII
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
 Pigment print on cotton rag paper.
Edition of 10, 20007.

Who, What, Wear reflects artists of African descent grappling with self-definition against oppresive circumstances, but also changing circumstances. The aesthetic presented speaks to  a cosmopolitan, urban language shaped by artists of African descent across the world. It is interesting how the same themes emerge across works created in different cities and by artists living under quite different social and political circumstances.

Some of the individuals captured in the images push against the boundaries of style. In spite of palpably difficult circumstances, they insist on visible self-expression. They are not dictated to by mainstream fashion or tradition. But assimilation and appropriation is also evident in the images. ‘Respectable’ middle class black people are shown going about their business. It could be that they are embracing the stylistic norms of the day, out of choice, or that they have succumbed to society’s impositions.

Featured artists range from Malick Sidibe to our own Lolo Veleko. Other works that grabbed my eye included Jan Yoors’ Wedding Hat and James VanDerZee’s On the town. VanDerZee chronicles life in Harlem. In these images, Harlem is a new neighbourhood, full of promise. Leafing through a book on VanDerZee in the museum’s reading room, I was struck by how dignified and hopeful the neighbourhood and its residents look. 

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