Monthly Archives: June 2009

EXHIBIT: Party Time with Yinka Shonibare

Lucky for those of you in Jersey! On July 1, the Newark Museum will present a major site-specific installation by the acclaimed British artist Yinka Shonibare MBE called Party Time: Re-Imagine America to commemorate the museum’s centennial. From Allison McCartney for the Newark Museum:

For the Newark Museum commission, Shonibare chose as his setting the mahogany-paneled dining room of the Ballantine House, built in 1885 for the prominent Newark brewing family, Jeannette and John Holme Ballantine, and part of the Newark Museum’s campus since 1937. In this opulent interior, the artist has staged an imagined scene of a late 19th century dinner party midway through a multi-course feast.

Eight headless figures, dressed in period costume made from the artist’s signature “Dutch wax” fabric, are seated around an elaborately set table as a servant appears bearing the main course, a large peacock served on a silver platter. The animated body language of the guests suggests a moment in which proper Victorian etiquette has begun to disintegrate, as an indulgent celebration of prosperity tips towards misbehavior and even debauchery. The scene references the rise of wealth and quest for refinement that accompanied industrialization in the United States, where the elaborate dinner party replaced the bare-minimum meal, becoming a celebratory “eating fest” for the social and economic ruling class.

Party Time is one of the Shonibare’s most important works to date, reflecting the culmination of major themes that the artist has explored in his work for over a decade,” observes Christa Clarke, the curator of Party Time and the Museum’s Curator of the Arts of Africa and Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas. “At its core, the installation considers the discrepancies of wealth generated by late-nineteenth-century enterprise, in which the material excesses and self-indulgence of a privileged few were made possible by the labor of others. His references to the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth in late 19th century America seem particularly relevant at this moment in time in the wake of our current economic collapse as a result of out-of-control spending.”

For those who are interested, on June 30, curator Christa Clarke will engage Shonibare in a dialogue about the artistic process in developing Party Time and how this major sculptural installation relates to his larger body of work. The 7 pm discussion will be preceded by a reception in the Museum’s Engelhard Court beginning at 6 pm, during which you will be able to preview the installation. The event is free and pre-registration is required.

While best experienced in person — it’s difficult to otherwise replicate the sensation of being drawn into the sensuous richness of his bright fabrics, while being distracted by the headless mannequins’ arrested gestures of promised violence– his tableaus presenting the perversions of colonialism are gorgeous and disturbing in any medium. For additional reading and viewing of his works, check out a great overview of Shonibare’s 2008 exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery (NYC) called The Age of Reason, as well as his 2005 interview with BOMB Magazine. You can also watch and/or listen to him talk about his work at the Tate in 2004, and hell, read this just-published essay about him at TIME.

From the installation Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, 2002


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Refusing Identification

At a time when civil liberties are being eroded and identity theft is rife, donning a hoodie or head scarf is about self- preservation; protecting that which we hold most precious. It’s about individuals refusing to be chipped and pinned, refusing to be beeped in and out of monitored spaces, refusing to be tracked by the all-seeing eye of CCTV. It amounts to a refusal of intrusive state control, a genius way to slip the net and go off grid. In this world of extreme self-exposure, the covered head allows us to cast ourselves in shadows of our own making. In the Post-Millennial era, we have come to exist, not in the bright glare of cameras but the comforting dark spaces in between.

From Nilgin Yusef, “Run For the Shadows,” for Political Fashion (Image by Princess Hijab)

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Frenchness, to the Exclusion of the Burqa

“Sarkozy’s whole thing has been to capture votes from the National Front, the far-right French party,” Scott says. “Anti-immigrant politics is a huge part of that. Sarkozy has taken this position all along that he is the champion of Frenchness. It plays well politically for him to find issues where he can declare himself the protector of French national identity.”

From Michelle Goldberg, “Burqa Politics in France,” from American Prospect, on French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statements to Parliament about a potential ban on the burqa

Other statistics might also help us understand why Sarkozy’s words about Muslim women in burqas might be about something other than Muslim women’s best interest. For example, although in France only 12% of the population is Muslim (due largely to migration from Muslim majority countries formerly colonized by France) 60-70% of those in prison are Muslim.

So now we have a bigger picture: Muslims as a “misbehaving” minority group, an ongoing war on terror and related distaste for all things Muslim, wide-spread discrimination against Muslims (1 in 3 Muslims in Europe have reported discrimination), desire to maintain a culturally homogeneous society, and, finally, a fascination with another man’s progress. Put together, the something else is revealed: by highlighting the oppression of Muslim women Sarkozy is giving people in France more reasons to do what France is already doing pretty well-marginalizing its large Muslim minority.

From Aziza Ahmed, “White Head of State Seeks Muslim Women to…Save?” from Reality Check

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WATCHING: Secondhand (Pepe)

I want to write about thrifting, both my personal history with thrifting (as war refugees, my family and I spent a good portion of our first decade in the United States in secondhand clothing) plus an analytic of thrifting (as, for instance, a much ballyhooed “recessionista” or “green recycling” consumption strategy). Meanwhile, I’m compiling some resources for teaching the transnational flows of secondhand clothing as both cultural capital and, well, plain ol’ capital.

Most recently, I picked up a copy of a documentary, Secondhand (Pepe), described thusly: “Secondhand (Pepe) is a 24-minute tri-lingual documentary about the role of used clothing in diaspora cultures. Filmmakers Hanna Rose Shell [an assistant professor at MIT in Science and Technology Studies] and Vanessa Bertozzi [a Brooklyn-based documentarian working at Etsy] weave two narratives into a visual and sonic journey. The historical memoir of a Jewish immigrant rag picker intertwines with the present-day story of ‘pepe – secondhand clothing that flows from the United States to Haiti. Secondhand (Pepe) animates the materiality of recycled clothes: their secret afterlives and the unspoken connections among people in an era of globalization.”

I’m pretty excited to watch the entire documentary once Minh-Ha arrives for our intensive writing summer camp. Here is a short excerpt!

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LINKAGE: Death Fat, Beth Ditto, and All Manner of Hijab

Fatshionista’s Lesley expands upon her concept of death fat, her wry take on the “But what about your health?” hand-wringing that accompanies condemnations of fat (see the comments at any Fashionista post about Beth Ditto): “Ultimately, I employ death fat as a means of gently poking fun at strangers who would get all wrought up over their manufactured concerns about my health. If I had my choice, I’d much rather folks just pretend I don’t need them to instruct me on how unhealthy they think I must be.”

And speaking of Beth Ditto, recent publicity about her collaboration with British department store Evan’s –including a doll!– has spawned some deep thoughts, including some worries about the potentially predatory circulation of her image-body as “fashion’s magical fatty:” “My point is that the fashion world and its related media are trying to appropriate Beth but they don’t really know what to do with her. They’re trying to fit her into stale formats (crappy plus-size fashion) and, as Carrie Brownstein points out, they cannot get over their own projections of fatphobia.”

Counterfeit Chic reports on the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority and its controversial policy on religious headgear: “Imagine being permitted to wear a religious symbol to work at your government job — but only if your employer’s logo were incorporated into it.” Sikh men and Muslim women would be made to wear the MTA logo on their headgear in order to better identify them, according to the MTA, to customers. But as Counterfeit Chic asks, “Isn’t the rest of the required uniform sufficient to convey the information that an individual is an MTA employee? Or is MTA really saying that the message sent by certain religious headwear is so loud (and scary) that it drowns out other sartorial signals and must be partially obscured by a governmental symbol?”

France, after banning headscarves in schools, considers banning any form of full hijab in the name of secularism. “If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles,” government spokesman Luc Chatel said, “naturally parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions.” State violence for your own good, seems to be the argument. President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an address to Parliament, called the burqa a “sign of subjugation, of the submission of women,” and indicated that he would support a ban on the wearing of the garment. Will France once again shoulder this “white man’s burden,” and forcibly unveil women in an effort to mold them into a “appropriate” French feminine civic body? How might this be continuous with those historical statutes and sumptuary laws by European imperial powers that also legislated –and punished!– the sartorial decisions of colonized populations, populations who (in the language of imperialism) required “civilizing” and “moral uplift”? Meanwhile, comments at Jezebel and Feministing are flying fast and furious with condemnations of the burqa and cheers for Sarkozy and, implicitly, for the state violence that would necessarily accompany a ban.

Meanwhile, France has also banned face masks at demonstrations and protests in order to deny protesters anonymity in their “threats to public order.” Of course, this comes at a moment in which protesting Iranians are covering their faces to protect themselves from tear gas but also other forms of state retaliation. Sometimes being uncovered, being forced into visibility by the state and for state purposes (identification, surveillance, and discipline), is the real danger.

The communications studies group blog Cac.ophony muses upon the imaginative possibilities of hijab punk: “Ultimate Hijab Punk story to read: “Misli Midhib, Punk Rock Hijabi” by Cihan Kaan about a girl named Misli who is dropped down to the earth via a meteor and who covers her cosmic skin with a full hijab and performs Sufi whirls to disrupt the narratives of Muslim women.”

On a related note, how about a flashback to Muslimah Media Watch on the French guerilla street artist and provocateur Princess Hijab, “who began her ‘noble cause’ of ‘hijab-ising’ advertisements in 2006. She does this by using spray paint and a black marker to cover women’s faces and bodies in ads, or by pasting ‘hijab ad’ posters everywhere she goes.”

And finally, a bit of hijab humor (via Racialicious)– “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide. I like, “Attempt Assistance. Make sure you ask whether she was forced to wear the scarf. Don’t believe her if she says no, and make sure to tell her not to fear her older brother or the men in her family. If she mentions wearing the hijab is her own choice, do make sure you tell her she is still oppressed, even if she isn’t aware of it just yet. Offer to keep in touch if she ever needs support.”

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TEACHING: Dress Codes and Modes

Bringing over some bookmarked resources from my stunted fashion blog from before I began to collaborate with the lovely Minh-Ha, I want to make a note of this extensive Powerpoint presentation on veiling practices at Women Living Under Muslim Laws. This Powerpoint will probably make an appearance in my politics of fashion course next semester.

Photograph by Christoph Bangert for the New York Times, 6 June 2009

CAPTION: BEFORE AND AFTER Riam Salaam Sabri, 16, wore more conservative clothing while security in Baghdad was poor, but now she feels safe in Western clothes.

Also, the “before American invasion” and “after American invasion” photographs accompanying this article about “What Not to Wear, Baghdad-Style” make especially relevant the arguments Minoo Moallem forwards about the political claims invested and invoked through clothing the civic body (which I discuss briefly here in an entry about the ubiquitous image of the Iranian woman in the loose headscarf during the Iranian election season).

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Textiles in a Time of War, and After

On one of the many episodes on Threadbanger, Corrine and Rob mentioned visiting the exhibition called Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory. A collection of contemporary textiles by textile artists, mostly women, featuring images of war and strife, Weavings of War is (according to the synopsis) a project of bearing witness to death and dispossession, as well as survival and strength. (The site also includes a photo gallery. Here is another of the Afghan war rugs in particular, and a an article titled “Carpet Bombing” about the exhibit.)

This is a semi-roundabout way to mention two sites of particular interest for questions about textual and textile analysis in transnational circuits of consumption and capital. The first is (d)urban(a), the blog of Martha Webber, a doctoral candidate (who also happens to be certified in Power Sewing/Operating Industrial Garment Machinery and holds a degree in Fashion Design) writing about her ethnographic research in Durban, South Africa, with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Create Africa South, a organization that, among other activities (including HIV/AIDS education and prevention), encourages craft and textile production as both a creative exercise and an entreprenuerial practice. In her own words, her research “examines the contemporary craft literacy relationships formed between nongovernmental organizations and citizens of the ‘global South’ over questions of development and participatory democracy. My dissertation focuses on Black South African women from the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces who engage in sewing and embroidery craft projects.”

In a time and place far, far away, I wrote a position paper on handicrafts, NGOs, and globalization for my qualifying exams, so I’m thrilled to be able to catch up on some of the latest scholarship. Martha writes about the Weavings of War exhibition catalog here in order to explain her intellectual and political interests in textile arts:

In November of 2006 while writing a review essay on “material rhetoric,” I included a catalog from the exhibition “Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory” in my consideration of “material” engagements with the public sphere. In that essay I argued that a rhetoric of material insists textiles and clothing possess materialized agency, like Alfred Gell’s notion of a secondary agent in Art and Agency or the notion of an actant in actor-network-theory. In positing a rhetoric of material, we can challenge the Western depth ontology that devalues surface and expand the possibility of what may count as rhetorical engagement, as well as the types of cultures and actors who can produce rhetoric.

Her blog is a fascinating (and funny) account working with one of the many handicraft NGOs in the “global South,” which stock the shelves of such stores as 10,000 Villages in the “global North,” full of tales of technologies gone awry, bureaucratic wrangling with donors, and details from the workshops on creating and producing the Amazwi Abesifazane cloth. Another excerpt from the latter:

Hand embroidery is a time-intensive medium. It allows the producer time to make decisions and to add and subtract items relatively easily (provided the selection of fabric, needle, and thread are compatible and you’re not using a large needle with a delicate fabric, for example, and rending holes in the fabric if you decide to remove any stitching). What has continued to interest me about the embroidery for these particular cloths, is that the images that are slowly and carefully embroidered are meant to represent past histories and living conditions of the producers sewing them. What thoughts does the producer consider, in this case Thandi, when she is embroidering a small, irregular rectangle that is meant to stand in and represent someone she has known that died? How does it feel to embroider personal and representative subject matter, especially if you know it is intended for a larger audience?

Martha has also found some amazing archival materials supporting a connection between colonial authorities and missionaries encouraging “native” craft industries as civilizing projects. Martha’s done some great work at the blog, and I cannot wait to read her dissertation, including footnotes!

The second piece I want to note here is Minoo Moallem’s collaborative multimedia essay at the e-journal Vectors, called “Nation on the Move.” It’s a breathtakingly nuanced work that I can’t begin to describe (which is really enhanced by the digital technologies used to illustrate and interact with her words), so here is an excerpt from her author statement:

In this essay, I focus on the Persian carpet as a borderline object between art, craft, and commodity. I interrogate the politics of demand and desire that derive from the modern notions and imaginaries of home and homeland as well as consumer pleasures arising from the conveniences and commodiousness of a repetitious consumer activity. The Nation-on the-Move involves a multidimensional, multilocational, and polyvocal approach by way of digital technologies. It recognizes the unevenness of time (time of production, advertisement, online auctions, and consumption); the mingling of the old, the new, and the emergent; spatial proximity or distance (here, there, and elsewhere); and the relation of nonvalue to use value and exchange value in a “scopic economy” that subsidizes the flow of representations for the history of material objects by producing audiences/spectators with a scattered and disconnected sense of attention. To challenge the shattering effects of consumerism, the designer and programmer, Erik Loyer has created what could be similar to a panel-design carpet that brings into the same frame of reference different times, spaces, and locations—real, fictional, and virtual—including ethnographic photography, TV auctions, movies, Orientalist painting, advertisement, museums, and art galleries.

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You Say You Want A Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf)

Because this is a fashion plus politics blog, I want to post some very brief thoughts about the protests rocking Iran after what some observers are calling a fraudulent election, reinstalling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against his main opposition, moderate reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi.

A glance at the Western media coverage from before and after the election reveals an overwhelming visual trope — the color photograph of a young and often beautiful Iranian woman wearing a colorful headscarf, usually pinned far back from her forehead to frame a sweep of dark (or highlighted) hair. Such an arresting image condenses a wealth of historical references, political struggles, and aesthetic judgments, because the hijab does. As Minoo Moallem argues in her book Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, both pre- and postrevolutionary discourses commemorate specific bodies –whose clothing practices play a large part— to create forms and norms of gendered citizenship, both national and transnational. What Moallem calls the civic body becomes the site of political performances in the particular contexts of modern nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

Source: Huffington Post

This particular image being disseminated throughout the Western press right now is no exception. In this moment of civil unrest, we are meant to understand these sartorial and somatic signs –the looseness of the scarf and the amount of hair she shows, but also the French manicure displayed by her v-sign or raised fist, her plucked eyebrows arching above Gucci sunglasses or balaclava mask— as cultivated political acts that manifest a defiant desire for Western-style democracy. But this shorthand is too simplistic, too easy. As Moallem argues, Islamic nationalism and fundamentalism are not premodern remnants but themselves “by-products of modernity.” As such, the image of the Iranian woman in her loose headscarf is not a straightforward arrow from Islamic backwardness to liberal progress, but a nuanced and multi-dimensional map of political discourse and struggle.

In her book, Moallem writes, “while I am interested in the production of the civic body, I want to show its instability over time in Iran.” We can see this instability in the histories of forced unveiling and forced veiling that mark particular historical and political moments in Iran. Very briefly, and no doubt simplistically, the pro-Western Reza Shah banned the veil in 1936 in a broad modernization effort, authorizing police to forcibly unveil women in the street. Women donned the veil during the lead-up to the revolution as a visible act of defiance against the Shah’s corrupt and brutal rule. After 1979, the broad coalition that had briefly united against the Shah was destroyed by the conservative Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resulting in a fundamentalist regime that, among other things, enforced veiling for women. As such, Moallem argues, forced unveiling and forced veiling are not dissimilar disciplinary practices that regulate the feminine body as a civic body subjected to the order of the visible. Moallem observes, “My grandmother’s body –like my own later– was marked by corporeal inscriptions of citizenship. Both of us shared an incorporated traumatic memory of citizenship in the modern nation-state. She was forced to unveil; I was forced to veil. Living in different times, we were obliged by our fellow countrymen respectively to reject and adopt veiling. Our bodies were othered by civic necessity.” (Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister, 69)

This is the barest intimation of the complicated history of the civic body we are seeing in photographs from Tehran now — in which the young woman with the scarf tied loosely, the lock of hair curling against her cheek or forehead, is made to stand for both this history and also for so much more. What is often lost in translation here is that unveiling does not always signal freedom, democracy, modernity, women’s rights, whatever — even if it might gesture toward these things in this particular moment. And there is no reason to believe that “freedom” and “democracy” should necessarily –or even ideally– look identical to Western discourses or practices of them. (Especially considering the American wars waged in the name of these concepts in Iraq, or the antiimmigration edicts sweeping the European Union.) Further, it’s important to situate this moment, in which we must recognize how both forced veiling and forced unveiling operated as disciplinary state edicts –often enacted violently on female bodies by male soldiers or police– at discrete political times to instrumentally shape a feminine civic body. As such I would issue two cautions. The first, we cannot necessarily know from how a woman ties her headscarf what the shape of her politics might be, even though clothing clearly does matter politically. And second, we might commit further violence (refusing her complex personhood, for instance) in assuming that we can.

Because the hijab is so often made to stand as a visual shorthand for Islamic oppression in the West, I wanted to reference its specificity as a political performance of a particular feminine civic body in Iran (which would be different than its history in, say, Turkey, where some female Muslim university students are demanding their rights to education against the state ban on headscarves in public schools and government buildings) in order to render these photographs that much more complex, and the emerging political situation that much more nuanced, in this moment.

An Iranian woman shows the ink on her finger after voting at a polling station in Tehran on June 12, 2009. Hundreds of voters were standing outside one of the biggest polling stations in uptown Tehran, an indication of a high voter turnout in the early hours of the presidential election in Iran. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)



The Fat Lies the Fashion Industry Is Telling

Ann Taylor and Bloomingdale’s recently joined Ellen Tracy, the Gap, and Banana Republic in slashing plus-sizes (size 16 and up) from their store inventories. While some retail experts are quick to reassure the public that “it has nothing to do with fat phobia”—instead, they insist that that plus-size lines make bad business sense due to high production costs and low consumer demand—this doesn’t really pass muster given the oft-cited fact that American women are on average a size 14 and that 70% of women are size 12 and up. Great style blogs like Fatshionista and Frocks & Frou Frou (to name only two that we love) and the popularity of made-to-measure services like those offered by some ingenious designers on the online marketplace (see the black dress lillipilli of Frocks & Frou Frou is wearing in the image!) demonstrate how high the demand for stylish togs are among larger women.

Fat phobia cannot be explained away by economic determinist arguments. Anyone who caught the fifth episode of The Fashion Show (Bravo’s rather uninspiring replacement for Project Runway) painfully witnessed the foul attitude some fashion designers have about plus-sized women.* And as Tatiana the Anonymous Model points out, “[I]f the cost of garment development were the only reason that plus-size ranges are making a hasty exit from shop shelves, we would be seeing the discontinuation of petite lines [another non-standard size], because they face all of the same expenses. And that hasn’t been happening.”

* And in the clips I saw, it seemed as if a number of the women were “normal skinny,” as opposed to “model skinny,” which nonetheless inspired tears and tantrums from the contestants. — Mimi

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Honoring The Prince

In one of the best commemorative events ever, Pop Matters is running a series of essays to celebrate twenty-five years of Purple Rain. In “The Beautiful One: Prince and the Fashion of Purple Rain,” Christel Loar contemplates the lasting effects of Prince’s ruffled white shirt on the sartorial landscape of popular culture in general, and her life in particular. I especially enjoyed reading about her heroic efforts to “evoke Prince” in her everyday, as lovingly detailed in this excerpt:

I wanted to evoke Prince and his aura of appeal more than I wanted to emulate any of the women. I couldn’t have cared less about appearing overtly sexy just then anyway. I was much more concerned with finding a way to make it out of the house in my custom deconstructed (my mother preferred the phrase “ripped and ruined.”) creations, or how exactly to wrap a random piece of lace around my breasts—I possess feeble sewing skills at best—so that it might become a “shirt” that I could wear under my denim jacket in an approximation of some of Wendy’s tougher garb. Incidentally, I finally perfected that trick in 1988, and, perhaps unfortunately, there’s a high school yearbook photo out there that proves it. In 1984, though, I was still young and refused to accept that outfits like a one-sleeved, half-blouse, half coat and brocade slacks might be inappropriate middle school attire.

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