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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Museum Studies: Fashioning the Future...

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

(Ruth E. Carter's special exhibit at the Taubman Museum of Art: "Afrofuturism in Costume Design")

I'm having a blast teaching Museum Studies this fall/winter at the Taubman Museum of Art. The museum has just opened a "Fashioning the Future" focus, featuring several visionary installations and exhibits, like Afrofuturism by costume designer Ruth E. Carter. The original Black Panther costumes (shown above) join those from a pair of Spike Lee films, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X (below). Eddie Murphy productions like Coming 2 America and Dolemite is My Name further demonstrate her global range. Her period-specific, symbolically rich designs for costume dramas like Roots & Amistad embody the same empathetic sobriety as her work on the award-winning civil rights film, Selma.

Carter is also known for design grounded in careful research. The students and I spent time considering her research boards: sketches, news articles, photos and clippings, paint color-samples; anything relevant for imagining, planning and building a creative world...

Our current class's primary focus is on E.V. Day's installation of reimagined opera dresses, "Divas Ascending." Day's work embodies polar states familiar in women's studies: "entrapment and empowerment."

We're using that bi-polar tension to guide discussions of the operas represented; it applies to each of the "Divas" on view. Working together as curators to investigate and distill the essence of these "Divas" is the homework I love most about this work. It's what I try to share by sheer enthusiasm :)

(Looking at Divas: Cinderella, lower R; Don Giovanni: Skirt Chaser, upper L; Mimi, red dress, C)

Like shadow figures or doppelgängers, Day's work resonates with operatic, fictional and historical meanings, holding each in "negative capability" (to borrow from Keats). She exploits these tensions and onion-layered resonances in her fashion-inspired sculptures. New York City Opera supplied retired opera dresses (worn by the likes of Beverly Sills and Pavarotti) to the artist. Her assistants helped her reimagine their materials and constructions by removing and rearranging layers. Michelangelo famously said sculpting marble meant chipping away until the work was revealed, simply removing anything unnecessary. Day's reimagined components are suspended, stretched and separated, like torn limbs caught in the act. Some, like Carmen, have clue-like props. Don Giovanni: Skirt Chaser is symbolically constructed: like a mirror image or palindrome, one side equals the other, or "entrapment" in every direction...

A fragment for Mimi (La Bohème)

after E.V. Day, Mimi: Rigor Mortis (Red velvet dress, above)

The stiff-armed red velvet dress is really named Lucia.

The stiff embrace she reaches for remains unfulfilled in death.

None of the stiff-lipped Bohemians can console her remorseful tenor,

Rodolfo, who's the last to realize her spirit has left her red dress.

top to botton: Hats, Manon: Ghost Angel; Giovanni: Skirt Chaser; Violetta (Traviata),

center, r; Mimi: rigor mortis; Cinderella: Peasant Dress, bottom L;

(Artists have loved nature and walks in it forever. Here's one of our neighborhoods, Highland Park).

Nature isn't only for walks and landscapes. It's a lesson in color and light, as the sunset at Va Beach frequently demonstrates. What amazing tones with such a simple palette: organically layered and subtly harmonized, like a post-impressionist canvas, at once timeless and surreally beautiful...

An iPhone Seascape? Maybe not, but its colors and magnificently blurred clouds suggest the calculated blending of color and light in the impressionists and the generation after them.

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