Monday, June 26, 2006

Brooklyn Museum: History Lessons

I got into a rather contentious blog discussion the other day with a blogger, who was pleased to see that Jacob the Jeweler had been arrested. He felt Jacob represented the worst of hiphop, not to mention how idiotic he thought it was for grown men to walk around bogged down by a bunch of jewelry.

When I commented that black guys wear jewelry for a lot of different reasons, not all bad, he snapped back that I, as a white woman, wasn't entitled to comment on subject. I'm still sort of pondering the exchange. Maybe he's right that I couldn't possibly understand because of my skin color, but whether that's true or not, it was something that was on my mind when I visited the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend.

As I strolled through the museum, happily snapping images of things that impressed me, I thought about the point I wanted to make in that exchange before things got ugly. I wanted to talk about how love of adornment and pageantry have always struck me as one of the most beautiful parts of the African diaspora's heritage.

^^Commenting while white.

^^Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Explanation of painting: "Wiley transforms the traditional equestrian portrait by substituting anonymous young Black man dressed in contemprorary clothing for the figure of Napoleon. The artist therefore confronts and critiques historical traditions that do not acknowledge Black cultural experiences."

And even hundreds of years after being taken from their homeland with nothing but the garments they wore on their backs, clothing and accessories remain an important part of black expression in the United States.

^^Rashid Johnson, The Evolution of the Negro Political Costume, 2004. Explanation of display: "[Johnson] is interested in the history of dress as a means of self-expression, specifically in black politics. The first outfit is a dashiki recalling the political approach of Jesse Jackson and his black nationalist rhetoric of the early 1970s. The center panel displays a tracksuit, often associated with hip-hop and contemporary African American youth culture in the 1980s, Al Sharpton reached out to urban black communities by wearing such attire. The last panel contains a business suit, symbolic of power gained through conformism, and assimilation, a uniform associated with Western culture. Johnson uses this garment to symbolize the current style of Barack Obama. Such different costumes, Johnson suggests, support different racial, cultural, social and political agendas and represent distinct historical portraits of black identity."

That's not to say from my observation that all the choices have been easy. As a minority, the struggle on how to define oneself against a backdrop owned by a dominant culture that is white and male is often a difficult one, sometimes with life or death consequences, giving the phrase "slave to fashion" a whole new set of meanings.

^^Painting of Jordan Jumpman and a noose, located in Brooklyn Museum display on archived art, exhibited without the artist's or painting's name.

But I think what amazes me the most is even after having their names, languages and family members torn from them....

^^Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty--Fugitive Slaves, 1862 that through all the challenges and hate and crushing attempts to destroy the African's past...

^^Sudanese Dinka corset, as exhibited against a 29th century photograph featuring corset being worn by two Dinka men. "Because the Dinka peoples are herders, wandering the vast plains of southern Sudan, portable possessions are very important. Like many southern and eastern African cultures, the Dinka have traditionally focused on the human form as the primary method of artistic expression."

...the beauty of an ancient history still not only survives, but demands to be expressed.


Butterfly Jones said...

Stunning Lois. Absolutely stunning post. We had an exhibition in London on Black Style at the V&A, the first major exhibition charting black street style - it wasn't perfect, but it was a start - not boasting, but I made it into the exhibition - I must scan the pic in. I was photographed with my hip-hop group wearing one of those Gucci Dapper Dan tracksuits - you remember 'em.

And as for blog arguments - some people don't know how to debate without getting ignorant. Keep on doing what your doing. I need to get me a digital camera - love your pics.

Lois said...

Thanks so much. That exhibit sounds great. I must see the pictures!!

I try to avoid the online ugliness. It is rampant though. I was a little surprised by this guy's response cause I'd been posting on his blog for a while. But oh well. Everyone has their moments.

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