‘Dress Code’ is a group exhibition discussing dress as a form of message-making at Gallery MOMO. Speaking to personal and collective manifestations of identity, curator Heinrich Groenewald, presents diverse practices of artists exploring this notion. ‘Dress Code’ unpicks the gravity of clothing as a psycho-social signifier of identity; through the diverse mediums and practices the artists engage with. Barring this conversation on the socio-didactics of dress – the exhibition also frames the honouring of costume as a medium in contemporary art practice as central to its aims.
The artists present in the exhibition are a diasporic group – allowing the discursive framework to extend to a global realm in speaking towards intercontinental manifestations of identity. The exhibition hosts Ceil Ann, Lizette Chirrime, Lesiba Mabitsela, Rory Emmett, Ayana V. Jackson, Francois Knoetze, Maurice Mbikayi, Siwa Mgoboza, Sethembile Msezane, Mary Sibande and Lucy Robson. The predominant pattern that emerges in their work is the presentation of masking and unmasking, in questioning the authenticity of self and that of their viewership.
Siwa Mgoboza’s Mira Mira (Look, Look) 2017 is featured in the first space of the gallery. The work presents a masked figure; the individual’s body is entirely covered in traditional Ishweshwe fabrics, depicted mid-step. Whether in protest or celebration is unknown. The figure’s dress however appears distinctly African due to its covering in bright fabrics. Whilst its race and face are erased from the piece – the fabric and movement are telling of the figure as alien, anonymous yet African. The figure seems other yet uncannily familiar. When curating Mira Mira in the first room of the space – and, further, in conversation with other pieces in the room – the piece loudly marks its African identity.
The accompanying artists’ works in this room may not be considered African via their aesthetics. Lucy Robson’s Untitled displays a European-style white dress that evaporates into the white gallery wall in contrast to the presence of Mgoboza’s piece. This internal tension not only mirrors a cognitive tendency to place people by race but also is reflective of our stereotyped conceptions of identity. The contrast of pieces furthers the stereotyped notion that African identities will seem over-stated and overly-colourful despite African identity assuming multiple forms in reality, each encountering their own plights of performance of the self and group assimilation.
These varying degrees of visibility and hypervisibility speak to the artists’ commentary on modes of performance in relation to the presentation of identity. The curation that follows is one of clustering – the artists’ work is grouped spatially according to the artists’ name. This grouping makes works function as a conversational unit rather than disparate parts; in a manner of presenting a case-study of performance. Often installation pieces are placed between other photographic pieces by an artist – causing these works to be auxiliary to the three-dimensional pieces.
One may even consider this curation to create tribes of identity between artists via the grouping of artists by name and the varying degree and type of performativity that each express. However, Mary Sibande’s Rubber Sole Monument of Aspiration (2009) and Living Memory (2011) are separated across the gallery, the works each speak to different performances of identity and thus their curatorial split is justified. The second space of the gallery brightly hosts Lizette Chirrime’s Coat with Blue Lining: the Layers of My Soul (2017)– this work is similar to the hyper-masking of Mgoboza’s centre piece in the first space in the gallery. The centrality of Chirrime’s work, paired with its hyper-presence and simultaneous anonymity causes works on the adjacent walls to speak to it as a centre point.
Drawing on the centrality of Chirrime’s work – the notion of celebration is heightened through its colour and seizure of the space. However, caution should be maintained in it foregrounding celebration as many of the accompanying artists express hardship and erasure of identity through their work. Celebration may perform a double erasure and in turn disallow the works to be as conversationally diverse when curated in an exhibition with this focus. ‘Dress Code’ provides the viewer with a singular question accompanied with an interdisciplinary and manifold answer. Works such as Ayana V. Jackson’s seem less than a celebration of dress and more a memorialisation of such.
Groenewald highlights the notion of performativity in the rationale for the exhibition. Lesbia Mabitsela’s piece presents the only non-static piece in the series. Hosted by virtual reality technology, an uncommon chance for viewers to engage on the evening that the piece was performed. Sethembile Msezane’s work is similarly performative yet, the gravity of its performativity is somewhat diluted via the centrality of Chirrime’s hyper-static work. Instead these performance pieces translate as memorial pieces due to the anonymity of this work.
Msezane’s transnational political statements seem diluted in contrast to the loud celebration adjacent to it. Perhaps in this sense the curatorial choices should have created spaces of celebration and spaces for more dense matters. Although all may, and should, be celebrated for their use of dress as commentary – this technique does however cause the surrounding works to be historicised and memorialised. Whilst the positionality of the exhibition is from a white, male curator, the exhibition predominantly features black, female artists. Thus the exhibition centrally discusses dress as a mode of liberation and suppression in the feminine realm.
With the curatorial lens of celebration these works are congratulated for exploring circumstances of liberation, freedom and defeat. The exhibition centrally looks back, rather than forward, in its carnival for dress, through studying the need for coding and recoding of the self through dress, one is reminded of the potential of this expression to highlight the threads between us, as an international art community.
Catch the exhibition, which is on until the 17th of June 2017, at Gallery MOMO, 170 Buitengracht Street, Cape Town.
Check back in with us early next week for an interview with Heinrich Groenewald by Juliana Caffé.