Four black women artists disrupted the Met’s history

Radha Blank’s installation, We good. Thanks! – a quilt-like headpiece made using African braiding and beading techniques – at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com

Over 198,000 visitors, and counting, went through In America: An Anthology of Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer. The exhibition, a challenging exploration of American fashion from the early 19th to late 20th centuries, focuses primarily on the museum’s American wing as a series of “contemporary rooms,” each furnished with its own historical American decor. Most notably, for the first time in the Costume Institute’s homogenous history to date, four Black women artists—Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Regina King, and Julie Dash—were asked to present their work.

The Met commissioned a total of nine directors – including Martin Scorsese, Tom Ford, Sofia Coppola, Autumn de Wilde and Chloe Zhao – to create video vignettes that challenged or highlighted an era in fashion scarred by colonialism, slavery and racism. And what the four black women are supposed to reveal is remarkable.

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

All directors were asked to create fictional cinematic vignettes in the historical rooms with the intention of reinventing a perspective on American fashion by working with historical garments from the institute’s extensive collection. Radha Blank’s installation, We good. Thanks! – a quilt-like headdress made using African braiding and beading techniques – explores the power of work and resilience of black women. Janicza Bravo shows video excerpts from the film from the 1970s The Conformist and the film of the 1930s Ten minutes to live. Regina King hired Amanda Gorman and Steve Harris to read “& So” and “Call Us” from her poetry collection Tell us what we wear. Julie Dash highlights two Black fashion icons by featuring mannequins wearing dresses by fashion designer Ann Lowe and a mannequin modeled after actress Eartha Kitt. The exhibition is open until September 5th. We spoke to Dash, Bravo and Blank. (We respectfully note that King was not available for interview.)

Janicza Bravo chose to show video clips from the 1970s film The Conformist.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What is your fondest childhood memory of the Met?

Hyphen: My sixth grader took the bus to the Met. It was clean-lined, spacious. One wonders a lot. I bought my mother a postcard of a Rembrandt.

Bravo: My earliest memory is from high school: I was a teenager and there with a class. The earliest kind of memory of it is a fantasy of being able to sleep there, right? Being there when no one is there. It was super surreal.

Empty: My mom made it a point to take us to museums — the Museum of Natural History, El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of the City of New York, the Guggenheim, the Met — they were all places of my childhood. All I remember at the Met was being pulled by my mother and walking past these huge relics of the past. And she would let me know that some of the pieces might be aboriginal to explain the origin of the artwork.

Julie Dash chose to feature mannequins designed to look like actress Eartha Kitt.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Given that this is an American art institution, how would you describe yourself as an American artist?

Hyphen: I’m an African American artist and mom who enjoys challenging myself by engaging in conversations. I like to borrow from the poets and take a simple line of dialogue – using visual metaphors and visual rhetoric in a way that may be familiar but has never been visualized like this. I feel like, as an American and a filmmaker, I always want to place my work in an international context. I want to start a conversation with the wide world, not just with a narrow urban one.

Bravo: How would I define myself as an artist? I don’t know that I ever had.

Empty: I’m an artist and I’m American. These two identities are very intricately intertwined – strongly defined and influenced by my blackness. I am a black person. I will always be black. I never wish to transcend my race; My racial identity influences everything I do. And that’s not always good. I mean it informs an interaction with a taxi driver or getting a taxi at all. Always alert. Always alert. I don’t know if it always serves my sense of freedom because I always have to walk around in it and approach everything as a Black person.

Regina King hired Amanda Gorman and Steve Harris to read “& So” and “Call Us” from her poetry collection Tell us what we wear in Richmond space, shown here.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com

Virgil Abloh once said, “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.” Which I think about a lot. How would you describe your installations to young people of color?

Hyphen: To be honest I didn’t know what they were talking about when they first called. I like being challenged. The thought of it was daunting. With fashion designer Ann Lowe, I immediately saw an opportunity not only to celebrate and enhance her work, but also to be a little subversive. If she was society’s best kept secret, well why didn’t she get her flowers while she was alive?

Bravo: I approached the task as if I were creating a film still. It was a moment in a moment in a movie. I thought about it like a film still, like a tableau, like a diorama. I’ve been doing work for this young me lately, doing work that this 17 year old wishes she’d had a chance to see. Because it took me a long time to become a filmmaker for many reasons. I needed to be able to see that someone else could imagine that I could. I’m really aware now that there’s probably someone else who needs this.

Empty: It’s about reinserting the voices of black women in particular into the conversation about their own survival and freedom. Maria Hollander (the designer of the dress) was an abolitionist and suffragette. It is very likely that it was a black woman who helped sew her clothes. What black woman could live in those times, survive those times? It was the kind of woman who sews clothes or cleans white people’s houses and takes care of their children during the day and conjures up some kind of survival and protection spell at night. The Obeah Woman. The black woman.

On the red carpet at the Met, I wore a red and white phantom headpiece inspired by Marie Laveau’s famous oil painting. I also wore a blue denim jacket inspired by the first denim makers – the indigo farmers of the south, the Geechee of the Gullah Islands. My hands were dyed blue to represent them. And then I wore a dress that was white, cream, and cream, in the spirit of ancestral dress—the ceremonial dress worn by women in Brazil or here in America.

In the installation I created, the words “We Good, Thx!” are written on a cotton headdress that accompanies Hollander’s dress. This cotton becomes the crown. It’s a textile; our experience is textured. That’s why you eventually see the braids growing out of this fabric shape. I think of black women braiding hair. We make quilts every day. I knew I wanted the braids to do the talking with this quilt. Because it’s braids, it’s immediately a black woman because it’s a black woman signifier. Braiding hair is survival.

Bravo’s work also included clips from 1930s films Ten minutes to live play in the Gothic Revival Library.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What is the significance of the four black women in the exhibition?

Bravo: It was quite radical to see that there are nine directors on this show and we are all so different. It’s so exciting; it’s really. You have nine directors and four of them are black women? You know that never happens, right? My jaw dropped when I saw Radha’s play. I was like Bravo. Just clapping. If we were to look at some kind of lineage, without Julie there wouldn’t be myself in this room, Radha in this room, Regina in this room. And that… that felt really radical – because our work doesn’t exist in the same tonal space.

Empty: Unless it is an all-Black film festival, Black filmmakers are not co-curated or programmed. This is historic, and there couldn’t be a more diverse group of black women. And so it means a lot that these four very different voices and storytellers are together; nothing we do is similar. But the fact that I get to share a room with Julie Dash? I don’t think anyone can guess what she means to me in terms of my career as a young woman. The first time I could look at a Black woman and say, “Oh, Director – that’s what it might look like,” you know? I cried when I saw Julie’s play. I felt seen. And I didn’t know I had to see that. And for Regina King, the fact that she wanted more for herself as a storyteller means she helps add more texture and color to the zeitgeist and landscape of storytelling. And we need them. We really, really need them.

Hyphen: To be in the larger conversation, each room offered something different. The rooms were just there before, but they weren’t alive.

Dash’s installation in the Renaissance Revival Room features the work of black fashion designer Ann Lowe.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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