New American Paintings/Blog


Re-Imagining Africa: YSL Denver by New American Paintings
July 3, 2012, 8:20 am
Filed under: Review | Tags: , , ,

In Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, the Denver Art Museum’s extensive exhibit on the fashion designer and his life works, the museum inundates viewers with fashion, fabrics, and fabulous eye candy, often with ceiling-to-floor displays that are so jam-packed with beauty, whimsy, and haute couture, that it is breathtaking and overwhelming. – Read more by Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor, after the jump!


YSL African Collection:
Courtesy of Haute World

That said, while I appreciate fashion and I most certainly appreciate fashion design as a reputable art form, there were a couple of points in the exhibit that felt jarring to me.  One section titled “A Dialogue with Art” was based on an earlier retrospective of his work at the Marceau couture house in 2004 that showcased Laurent’s work next to the artists who influenced it, such as Van Gogh and Matisse. In Denver’s rendition, this “Dialogues” section also introduced his “African-inspired” collection. The wall label featured lightweight text that discussed the ways in which Yves Saint Laurent himself wanted to elevate the art of fashion and the art of Africa (specifically that of the Malian Bambara) to create this “dialogue” between art and fashion:  a noble cause, and certainly a bigger dialogue then than now, as high fashion is often considered art in the present.


YSL Matisse dress:
“ Yves Saint Laurent, Long evening dress, inspired by Henri Matisse, haute couture collection, Fall–Winter 1980. Black velvet and moiré faille, multicolored satin appliqué leaves” © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris/Photo A. Guirkinger.

Many of the rooms leading up to this African-inspired collection featured fashion inspired by other countries as well: Russia, Japan, Spain, China, and Morocco, to name a few.  However, I noticed a couple of particular phrases were used a lot surrounding the exhibit: “imaginary journeys,” “imaginary-travel-inspired collections,” or “whimsical travel.”  I was not quite sure what that meant until I delved into the sub-text of the wall labels and did some research at home.  Laurent himself was not a big traveler.  Most often, he imagined the lands and people who offered him visual inspirations for his collections.

And his collections are rich and stunning.  But yet, something in these dark rooms didn’t sit right with me.


YSL “Imaginary Journeys” dress:
Photo by Erica Nikolaidis, courtesy of Design Sponge

After years in grad school researching postcolonial studies and reading such seminal texts as Edward Said’s Orientalism, Linda Nochlin’s “Imaginary Orient,” or Annie E. Coombes’ Reinventing Africa, I guess it came down to the fact that I felt like I was traipsing through an adult version of the Disneyland ride “It’s a Small World,” moving from one imagined country to the next.

My feelings of unease (and my questioning about whether this unease was rightly justified or academically paranoid) were complicated by the writing surrounding the exhibit.  Laurent himself was born in French Algeria, so he was an international figure and immigrant to France.  Some reviews act as if his homage to Mali and Morocco was in fact a return to his own “African heritage.”  As Bethany Smith writes in Mile High a la Mode,

“He was inspired by indigenous clothing, tribal dancers, native crafts, and centered his 1967 collection on West African Bambara art. ‘African art is the beginning of the modernity of art’, Müller [the curator] said, reiterating the significance of Laurent’s attention to traditional African styles and his relevance as a contemporary artist.”


YSL Bambari dress
: Courtesy of Denver Post

Texts like Smith’s reveal both sides of the coin that made me at once uncomfortable and proud of the work and intentions of Laurent.  Smith’s generalized nod to a fictitious and often-imagined Africa echoes much of the stereotypes and wild imaginings of Africa that the Western world has today: “indigenous clothing, tribal dancers, native crafts” – all of these descriptions are tinged with a heavy hand of colonial and anthropological negative misnomers that reveal more of the Euro-American world than they do the Malian or African people and subject that they are looking to and mislabeling as “other.”  For example, the clothing in Mali has specific names such as the boubous or bògòlanfini (more commonly known as “mud cloth”); the people of Mali do not refer to themselves as tribes or tribal, but rather as people; and the crafts need not be labeled native.  In fact, “indigenous,” “tribal,” and “native” are all rather contested, pejorative terms with intricate histories of their own.  (For a simple breakdown, see these usage notes for: tribal, native, and indigenous.)

However culturally insensitive though, the second statement in the quotation above cites the curator Janet Müller.  Here, Müller’s statement affirms something that is not often acknowledged or iterated in the contemporary art scene of the West, even now: that African art did in fact deeply and profoundly impact (and even birth) the modern art movement.  We can see this influence and impact in the works of Picasso, Braque, and many other modern artists.  (For particularly interesting verbal and visual interpretations of Picasso’s trouble acknowledging this African influence, see Simon Gikandi’s “Africa, Picasso, and the Schemata of Difference” and artist Faith Ringgold’s painted quilt series The French Collection Part I, specifically the Picasso’s Studio quilt below. )


Faith Ringgold’s, Picasso’s Studio
, 1991, Acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border 73 x 68″, From the Series: The French Collection Part I; #7 Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, Charlotte E. W. Buffington Fund.

In the end, the exhibit was beautiful and decadent, but it lacked a density and deeper conversation that I longed for throughout. As sheer fashion eye candy, it did its job.  As a grand collection and retrospective of Laurent’s exceptional life’s work, it did as well.  But as a look into the complex history of imagining a culture and people, it did not.  After all, there’s only so much that wall labels can offer museum visitors; though I do hope that this conversation will be one that grows from here, from Denver, from Paris, from Madrid, and from Mali.


YSL “
The Last Ball”: Courtesy of Explore Steamboat

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.

 

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