Sunday, March 18, 2018

More than Fashion

Stunning! The word overheard from visitors and buzzing on social media describes my first impression. A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes which recently opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art offers an enchanted visit with a walk through seven themed areas related to femininity defined by fashion. The seven archetypes include Thespian, Mother Earth, Explorer, Magician, Enchantress, Sage and Heroin queens. Each is represented by clothes displayed in fitting decors accompanied by accessories representing their character with a total of more than one hundred items from renowned to more obscure avant-garde fashion designers. Related wall texts, videos and prints complete the display.
The exhibition starts in a dark space illuminated only by a few spotlights aimed at a central pedestal on which are perched mannequins wearing gowns, dresses and suits from Alexander McQueen who inspired the show. David LaChapelle's photograph of a costumed McQueen and his mentor Isabella Blow near a Scottish castle is a reminder of the fashion designer's heritage. The section about Thespian includes detailed wall texts and photographs from Omar Victor Diop and Cooper and Gorfer. Nearby, Mother Earth features an artificial grotto as a backdrop for a garden of Eden filled with pink flowers. A closer look reveals protest signs and banners embedded in the paradisaical display. Designer Vivienne Westwood's clothes are accompanied by her hand written manifesto/poem about "Climate Revolution" and one can find a pair of trainers from Adidas made with recycled plastic, a smog free ring, T-shirts with slogans like "Be Gentle and Kind" or a bag made of tarpaulin from Sweden as well as a scarf from Lebanon addressing the refugee crisis. The next gallery hosts the five remaining queens starting with Explorer. Everyday clothes like checkered shirts or cardigans with distorted shapes represent the adventurer and rebel. She is not afraid of being different as illustrated by photographs of models on wheelchairs or the deformed prosthetic torsos from Maja Gunn. Magician or "the impossible made reality" is rendered by outlandish outfits set in a fairytale installation. Holes allow to peep inside a white plastic enclosure surrounding a blooming orchard that contains sixteen items fit for a seductress-Enchantress. Sage is characterized by her wisdom and wades into "smart-garments": shoes made of pineapple waste, sounds-suits for deaf people, a "cymatic" dress, biodegradable textile made of cow manure or jewelry controlled by mobile devices. Ecological to sci-fi, fashion has no limit thanks to new technologies presented in six short videos while samples of the real things are displayed in a glass case. The final queen, Heroin, a soldier and warrior, wears shiny or padded dresses like armors and elaborate headpieces like helmets.

From sculptural jewelry and dresses to adorned shoes, the blurry boundaries between art and fashion are highlighted throughout the show. The print from Maïmouna Guerresi, a multi-media artist, conveys ideas about life and death through soap bubbles escaping from a round black hole suggesting an outsized womb built in the garment worn by the model. Another memento mori, LaChapelle's photograph of McQueen and Isabella Blow features the two partying in extravagant costumes near a Scottish castle. The scene includes a discrete skull at the lower right. Premonitory? They both did suicide. A dazzling sculpture from Raoúl de Nieves made of thousands of minuscule colored beads contrast with a white gown from Alexander McQueen set along the wall like a figurehead. At every turn, the show offers not only visual stimuli but also fodder for thoughts about ecology, cultural diversity, psychology of colors, technology, economics, sociology, psychoanalysis, politics, ... Fashion is glamorous but also engaged. The concept of the exhibition itself is bold defining seven feminine archetypes modeled after Carl Jung's universal symbols. Feminist movements questioned Jung's theories in the past due to their stereotyping of femininity. Fashion tends to submit women to trends and conformity but this time it appears as a "reflection of women as talented and multifaceted". If the abundance of wall texts appeared overwhelming at first, it contributes to an  enriching visit.

The exhibition was curated by MUSEEA, a collaborative platform based in Barcelona. It is accompanied by an enlightening pamphlet from Mel Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and a catalog.
... stunning, fascinating, informative, provocative, artistic,...

photographs by the author:

Vivienne Westwood Red Label, UK Placards "Mirror the World", Spring/Summer 2016
Raúl de Nieves "Day(Ves) of Wonder", 2007-2014
Hassan Ajjaj "Kesh Angels" series, 2010