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CINCINNATI, Ohio — To be clear, I saw Dress Up, Speak Up: Regalia and Resistance at the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati a while ago — long before many of us were relegated to a stay-at-home wardrobe requiring only soft pants and Zoom-presentable tops. Back in the old “before“ times, when people wore outside clothes as a matter of course, and therefore at times required certain extra-special clothes, Dress up, Speak Up focused on art that features garments which serve as not only as markers of self-expression, but even as a kind of existential armor that protects and reinforces an individual in the struggle to assert herself, against the backdrop of history, regime, or oppressive social climate.
My chief complaint, at the time, was that the truncated spaces of the hotel may have given short shrift to the decadence and energy of the works in this particular exhibition (which here comes to a rest at the end of a tour that included larger spaces in 21c’s Lexington, Durham, and Louisville locations). While other 21c locations have more traditional and express-built gallery spaces, the Cincinnati location displays exhibitions in a series of non-contiguous areas, requiring the visitor to jump floors and traverse ramps, corridors, and off-peak banquet rooms to see all the works. Luckily, with the closure of physical infrastructure, the 21c has just debuted a virtual tour of Dress Up, Speak Up, enabling viewers to experience this parade of amazing works without the impediment of public health concerns or the physical disconnect between display spaces. What a prime time to revisit it!
The lobby works are a veritable Mardi Gras of colorful figures, with one entire wall and a central floor installation dominated by the sequin-heavy stylings of Ebony G. Patterson; another is animated by a huge, celebratory tableau of collaged felt by Jody Paulsen, with a stunning quilt appliqué portrait by Bisa Butler, and additional large-scale works by heavy hitters in the 21c collection, such as Nick Cave and Kehinde Wiley. In addition to one of Cave’s Soundsuits (2007) in the lobby center, there are a few other freestanding costume works, including Raúl de Nieves‘s “Somos Monstros/ Erik (in collaboration with Erik Zajaceskowski)” ( 2016), a kind of auxiliary “soundsuit” with a blank-eyed face mask, and Jeffrey Gibson’s Prism (2018), a floating ceremonial gown with dimensional appliqué and streaming sleeve details. The street-facing front window frames a sculpture by Athi Patra-Ruga, “Proposed Model of Francois Benga (1906-1957)” (2018), that pushes beyond garment, adorning and defining the figure through the direct application of artificial flowers and jewels into high-density foam form.
The interior galleries strike notes both intimate and mythic. Yinka Shonibare’s 12-print photographic series, Dorian Gray (2001) riffs on Oscar Wilde’s famous literary work, while Vivek Vilasini’s large-scale photograph “Last Supper – Gaza” (2008) is one in a series of works which feature characters from the famous Bible-tale-turned-Renaissance-portrait, played out by women wearing head-to-toe niqab. We Live in Silence (2017), a series of photographic works by Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai, considers the cultural effects of Christian missionaries, via the beliefs and mythology they (super)imposed on various preexisting African religions and cultural frameworks.
Indeed, the tension between colonial legacies and resistance to the crush of European culture and convention runs throughout the winding exhibition, with references both the historical — as with “For Sarah: The African Princess” (2016) by photographer Dagmar van Weegal, which retells the true story of Sara(h) Forbes Bonetta, an orphaned and enslaved Yoruba princess who eventually married into Victorian society — and the achingly contemporary, as with Fahamu Pecou’s “Breathe” (2015), which directly references the constriction of basic freedoms in everyday African-American life.
As is so often the case with 21c exhibitions, each work has its own detailed story, and yet fits cleanly into the curatorial vision of the whole. The 21c art team is small, compared with organizations that might house similar collections, and as a result, there is a clarity in the vision that assembles these exhibitions — rooted, of course, in the interests of 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, who explicitly collect a wildly diverse international cohort of living artists. Though the insights provided by the tour and educational materials are appreciated, they are hardly necessary, as individually and collectively, the works do exactly what the exhibition title promises: they dress up, and speak loudly, colorfully, and irresistibly.