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KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Fashion is fundamentally driven by an idea of newness — and endless cycle of seasons, each promising change and innovation at a level that is, in reality, logistically unsustainable. That’s why fashion constantly digests and repurposes itself, with throwback “retro” styles emerging 20 years after their first wave, like clockwork. Thus, fashion is a perfect handle for After the Thrill is Gone: Fashion, Politics and Culture in Contemporary South African Art, a group show featuring 13 South African artists, all of whom began their careers after apartheid. In myriad ways, these artists utilize fashion in their efforts to examine South African society, now just past the 20th anniversary of the historic overthrow of South Africa’s segregated system of rule.
The show, organized by curator Andrew Hennlich, is spread across several galleries in the Richmond Center for Visual Arts on the Western Michigan University campus. Hennlich came to South Africa by way of his dissertation work at University of Manchester on the influential South African artist William Kentridge.
“As I was in the process of revising one of the chapters [the PhD became a book], I discovered a bunch of reading about [Walter] Benjamin in particular, and his relationship to fashion, and how there’s a kind of politics about time in that,” Hennlich said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “It’s about a recycling of the past and a never-ending newness.” This concept of reprising the past was a potent frame by which Hennlich was able to view the work of three artists — Julia Rosa Clark, Dan Halter, and Pierre Fouché — and eventually become the basis for the show.
Immediately upon entering the gallery, the eye is drawn to a sculptural work by Mary Sibande, “… Of Prosperity” (2012). Like many of Sibande’s works, the piece augments formal dresses of a Victorian or colonial style, rendering them in vibrant blue fabric. In this case, the sprawling skirts coalesce into hexagonal soft sculpture, a melting honeycomb — perhaps a repository of surplus, for the figure is laden with bags in matching blue. Like many artists included in After the Thrill, Sibande works between media, sometimes showing the dress arrangements as standalone sculptures, sometimes using them as costumes for elaborately staged studio photography, several examples of which are also included in the exhibition.
This theme of fashion as an individuating force is echoed in the works of other artists accompanying Sibande in the front gallery: Athi-Patra Ruga, who uses fashion and fiber works as vehicles for the camp aesthetics that inform his performances about identity politics; Gerald Machona, who fashions garments out of different decommissioned currencies, then uses these objects as props in video works, such as the spacesuits worn by the titular characters in “People From Far Away” (2012); and Kudzanai Chiurai, who brings a stylized eye to his intricate Revelations series, using the lexicon of fashion photography to activate some of the most deeply entrenched stereotypes of life under African dictatorship.
“He [Chiuri] is very much looking at people like David LaChapelle, looking at American hip-hop videos,” said Hennlich. “The early part of this series has a lot of young kids carrying guns around. When I did a studio visit with Kudzanai, he talked about how, when you go to a place like Sierra Leone, these kids would take nicknames from American hip-hop videos — so there’s always this conscious look at what it means to fashion the African self to African-American identity, back and forth again.”
The sense of exchange is epitomized in Chiuri’s photo “Revelations X” (2011), where the dictator figure delivers a speech, striking a Mao-esque pose before a Konga cloth featuring Barack Obama between two maps of the African continent; just as African-Americans might adopt material or tribal signifiers of African culture without direct identification with them, Africans look to the United States for cultural status symbols that are incorporated into their own vocabulary.
In the second gallery, fashion operates in the opposite direction — rather than signifying individuality, the fashion objects in this space act as a kind of visual synecdoche for everymen and everywomen. In Haroon Gunn-Salie’s “Amongst Men” (2014), a field of suspended white koefia (Muslim prayer caps) stand as proxy for those who attended the funeral ceremony for Imam Abdullah Haron — a faith leader who was detained, tortured, and murdered in 1969 for his organization of anti-apartheid activities. Nearly 40,000 individuals attended his funeral, despite a government ban.
Surveilling this scene is a wall of large black-and-white photographs, Berenice 10-28 (2010), by Gabrielle Goliath. Goliath enlisted the aid of 19 women, recruited mostly through random interactions in public, to be photographed as stand-ins for her childhood friend, Berenice. The original Berenice died at the age of 10 from a gunshot wound, sustained in her home on Christmas Eve under somewhat mysterious circumstances. There seems to be no effort made to match the actual age of each proxy Berenice to a year of her life, represented through to the age of 28 (when Goliath completed the piece), and visually the images are unified only by their formal elements, including all the subjects wearing a white undershirt. Though this garment is referred to by Goliath in the British nomenclature of “vest,” it is a chilling and inadvertent connection within this series about the echoes of domestic violence that the garment is sometimes known in the US as a “wifebeater.”
These are just a few of the powerful moments presented within After the Thrill is Gone — truly a dense, colorful, and rich examination of fashion as an expressive medium at work in a group of formally complex and conceptually mighty pieces. As the thrill and triumph of newness wears away in South Africa — and with the current closing of the universities, in a move that sends up a lot of red flags to students of the country’s history — it remains to be seen if democracy is still in fashion, or if, perhaps, this new political season is a retread of the old.
After the Thrill is Gone: Fashion, Politics and Culture in Contemporary South African Art continues at the Gwen Frostic School of Art (1903 West Michigan Avenue, 2110 Richmond Center for Visual Arts, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan) through October 28.