This week’s review is a bit of a cheat, as I’m reviewing an exhibition that closed on Monday. However, it was too wonderful not to share with Worn Through readers.
This exhibition was a wonderful breath of fresh air for me. I have little to no knowledge about African textiles, and so this was that rare opportunity where I am not only writing my Worn Through column, but discovering something new myself. And I certainly learned a lot at African Textiles and Adornments: Selections from the Marcel and Zaira Mis Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I left the exhibition far better informed on this topic than I arrived and with a number of scribbled questions for “later research.” Leaving the exhibition with just one of these would have told me how good it was, but there was more: I left with a completely new perspective on “adornment” and what it can mean across cultures — even neighboring cultures.
The exhibition was excellently laid out and displayed. With very few exceptions, you could see the entirety of the pieces — front, side, back — something that is often not possible in fashion and textile exhibitions for any number of perfectly legitimate reasons. Despite knowing this, I was overjoyed that the exhibition design and the excellent condition(conservation?) of the pieces meant that for the majority of those on display you were able to completely circumnavigate the garments to see construction details that might otherwise be hidden. What’s more, the exhibition was arranged so as to best emphasize the dramatic beauty of many of the pieces.
I am often uncertain of using words like “dramatic” when reviewing ethnographic exhibitions and collections because I am afraid of crossing the line from admiration and into stereotyped terms used to demean or mystify that which is unknown and “foreign” in fashion and the arts (“tribal” comes instantly to mind). But here, I mean that these textiles were treated in much the way I have seen great paintings treated: they were treated as the works of art they are, and were lighted and arranged in the way to make the most impact on the visitors. Textiles and clothing are art, invoking the intense likes and dislikes of any art form. We might debate what is worthy of attention and what is not, but when you see the craftsmanship of the pieces below, you cannot deny that they are incredible and deserved such treatment. That they received it is no surprise, since I was at the same museum that gave us Fashioning Fashion, but it is a wonderful approach to a clothing and textile exhibitions — and one I hadn’t seen in quite some time.
The exhibition was remarkably educational as well — as I said, I walked in with virtually no knowledge of African textile traditions and left with many answers and even more research questions. A vast variety of cultures was represented and I found myself thinking that the classification of “African textiles” — since they are often all lumped together — is much, much to broad. Perhaps they are not within the field of African textiles, but in the general field of dress history they are. The nuances and subtleties from one culture to another when cultural similarities and exchanges clearly existed, and the rather radical differences when no such exchanges existed were wonderfully articulate in the garments and fabrics on display. These differences were not explicitly discussed on the tombstones. Instead, each piece was treated as the unique artistic object it is, but the museum’s thoughtful arrangement of pieces allowed the visitor to gauge for themselves the similarities and differences, to compare and contrast as they so chose. I find this rather brilliant on the museum’s part because it is educational without overwhelming someone who might not be comfortable in an art museum setting, or not particularly interested in analysis — a wonderful way to essentially serve all visitors.
This was particularly apparent when looking at the various headpieces, hats, and masks that were in glass cases. In the first case in particular, there were three completely different head pieces (including the one below), from three equally different cultures all located in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. These were next to four pieces from what is now Nigeria from the Yoruba culture and others who had contact with them. The stark differences found from the cultures in the DRoC and the similarities between those located in Nigeria told a story in and of themselves, but it was nonetheless one of the questions I wrote down: why such contrast in one place and such similarity in another? Did the Yoruba culture dominate the others, or was there simply more congenial communication? Were the cultures in the Congo antagonistic, or simply isolated from each other by geography? And the wonderful thing was: these were stories being told through textile and garment techniques. There were no other cues to lead me to ask these questions.
Something else that struck me while I was viewing African Adornments was that as dissimilar as different cultures can be, we are all still human: art may shift and change, but why we get dressed and what we wear inevitably is the same in many, many ways. This is perhaps because it is a theme in the classes I am teaching this semester, but despite the desire to exoticize Africa and its art and textiles — whether during the 1920s “Primitivism” fad, or “tribal” modern fashion collections — the simple fact that they are made and worn by human beings gives them a familiarity that is comforting. Many of the garments on display were essentially conspicuous consumption, though the designs and traditions were different from those of the bon ton the desire to flaunt your status is universal; others were meant, like any set of “vestments” to separate the sacred from the profane; and others were painstakingly made and embroidered by individuals hoping to attract the admiration of the opposite sex — a universal theme if ever there was one.
It may be my personal prejudice, but I believe that an exhibition that shakes perceptions you didn’t even know you had is hands down a remarkable exhibition. This one certainly shook mine. Immediately after graduating in 2010 I began research that has long been shelved on tattoos and other permanent alterations to the body (piercing, scarification, etc.) from the perspective of it being a type of clothing. Despite this, I was extremely impressed by several pieces that were made possibly with the idea of coordinating with or accenting in some way individual scarification. This brought to mind something I once read by Lou Taylor about how no mater how hard museums try, they can never bring the garment to life the way a living body can, because with the exception perhaps of Rodarte’s pieces designed for museums exclusively, all clothing and textiles are designed to be worn. While I may have acknowledged tattoos and scarification as a sort of “clothing” in and of themselves in my research, it seems startling to me that it never occurred to me that clothing could be their accessory.
Another “challenge” to perceptions I didn’t know I had was in the two masks on display. Both the “elephant” mask that opened the exhibition (on display in the second photo of this post and above), and the dancer’s mask in the third photo of the exhibition. Masks serve many purposes, and the idea of hiding the face can cross cultures easily. Aristocratic women of late seventeenth-century England covered their faces with a mask, mardi gras in Venice still celebrates mask wearing. But this exhibition did an excellent way of showing how mask wearing in African cultures was a way of separating the sacred from the profane. These masks were intentionally designed to hide the identity of male dancers at African courts, because only the initiated could know the dancers’ “true” identity. I know there are probably many people who can (and I hope will!) contradict this statement, but so often in Western European dress history, masks, veils, and other methods of concealing the face are used to protect the virtue of women. The idea of the mask protecting the sacred from the profane is new to me, and I admit I very much like it and will view all African masks — whether they be textiles, or carved or any other sort of craftsmanship — in a new light. In fact, I might think of any and all masks, no matter their culture of origin differently from now on.
The exhibition was not large, when I actually stop to consider it. But it left a disproportionately large impact on me. I cannot be alone in this because there were rather a large number of people in the exhibition. There was a seamless blend of varying cultures, of contemporary with historical. I left with a determination that an ignorance I had long been embarrassed by should be corrected sooner rather than later, and with a whole new perspective on adornment. All because I took the time to visit African Textiles and Adornment at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Did any of you get to see African Textiles and Adornment? What did you think? Are there any other African textiles or art exhibitions that you have seen that had an impact on you? Or is there one particular exhibition that challenged perceptions you didn’t know you had? Please share your thoughts and experiences below. And if you know of any exhibitions and/or events that Worn Through readers would like, feel free to mention them, or to email the details to me.