In Dress Up, Speak Up at 21c, Artists Unravel Clothing and Ornament Into Identity Politics | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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In Dress Up, Speak Up at 21c, Artists Unravel Clothing and Ornament Into Identity Politics 

Gully Godz in Conversations Revised I, II, III" (2010) by Ebony

Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel

Gully Godz in Conversations Revised I, II, III" (2010) by Ebony

Almost everyone is a child of colonists, if you go back far enough. Those who have lost their freedom, their homeland, their livelihood, and their family first had those things to lose, which means they probably took them from someone else at some point. Who you are depends upon where you locate your point of origin. It's likely that you've interwoven lines from multiple points in time to sew the fabric of your identity.

In Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation, an exhibit at Durham's 21c Museum Hotel, artists honor, critique, and widely explore the complexities of their histories through the frames of costume and ornament. It's a visually dazzling show as well as a politically charged one, in this moment of the refugee, the nationalist candidate, and the hotly contested bathroom, when who you are really, really matters.

Dress Up, Speak Up gathers more than twenty artists from more than a dozen countries. Its two stars are Jamaica's Ebony G. Patterson and British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare's photography, video, and sculpture are included, as are Patterson's multimedia two-dimensional works and tapestry installations. The museum's video alcove brings them together to form the epicenter of the exhibition.

Colorfully patterned or batik fabric—immediately identifiable as "African"—is omnipresent in Shonibare's work, but it has a complex colonial past that he complicates even further. Based upon Indonesian designs, the fabrics were produced by the Dutch and British and introduced into West African markets. Shonibare subtly works contemporary iconography, such as corporate logos, into the patterns.

In his video, "A Masked Ball," Shonibare uses the fabric to show the sick fantasies of empire. In a gorgeous yet grotesque pantomime of Victorian manners, a colonial matriarch hosts a party at her manor. The guests' gowns and jackets could have been designed for a film version of a Brontë novel, but, jarringly, they're made of African fabric instead. Brilliantly colored feathered masks cover the actors' faces beneath powdered wigs. The visual richness of the costume combines with the wordless action to show the nightmare of contradictory colonial impulses: the dominance of a native race is nonetheless powered by desire.

Where Shonibare uses costume to refer to national or general categories of identity, Patterson zooms in on ornament to make finer, more personal or subcultural differentiations. Dress Up, Speak Up features two of her dizzying installations, a wall tapestry covered with glitter, jewels, and beads above a litter of fake flowers, knitted leaves, and ornate shoes. In "Gully Godz in Conversations Revised I, II, and III," she depicts Jamaican dancehall culture, in which men wear feminine clothing to achieve a high campiness. The scenes take formal art-historical cues from medieval tapestries and from a famous painting by Jamaican artist Barrington Watson. But Patterson's subjects selectively co-opt those traditions to transform themselves into pan-gendered creatures, if only for the duration of a night out.

Patterson's "found among the reeds – Dead Treez" offers a very different tableau. She shows part of the body of a victim of racial violence on a surface with a map-like outline. But the tapestry is so densely infested with patterns and glitter that you have to summon attention just to find the imagery. It shows how ornament at once contains and conceals a coded cultural message, which hides ornately in plain view.

Other works in the show pose questions about Muslim feminine identity, such as Lalla Essaydi's photograph of Muslim women nearly overwritten by Arabic script and Vivek Vilasini's re-creation of the Last Supper with women in black hijabs along a table holding only bread and pomegranates.

Others consider how war and mourning warp identity, as in Mariú Palacios's shrouded portrait of the Peruvian mistress of her great-great granduncle, a hero in the war with Chile in the late 1800s, or Dinh Q. Lê's white-on-white embroideries of interrogation photographs of vanished Khmer Rouge victims, with numbers pinned ominously to their chests.

Several local artists examine black identity, ranging from Beverly McIver's deeply personal self-portrait with a blackface doll she loved as a child to Antoine Williams's angry, monstrous elegy for Freddie Gray, shrouded in a plastic drop cloth and bound in seat belts. Dress Up, Speak Up prompts you to think about the history and experience you wear on your sleeve, to critique your identity toward a more authentic social presence. We're all naked under our clothes.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Reap What You Sew"

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