March 12, 2010

Article | Clothes, Culture and Identity

Check out this review of the fashion and clothing-based exhibition Native/American Apparel for the Costume Museum of Canada:

Clothes, Culture and Identity: Native/American Apparel asks harder questions than "does this make my butt look fat?"
by Sandee Moore

"The clothes make the man," the saying goes; dress provides important cultural clues about the wearer's status. For example, the length of the apron on an amauti (Inuit parka) indicates fecundity. In her exhibition Native/American Apparel for the Costume Museum of Canada, curator Jenny Western has brought together a motley bunch of objects from the museum's collection with fashion-based work by two contemporary Aboriginal artists. Boundaries between European and Indigenous, traditional and modern, and fashion and art are traversed, creating a multi-faceted view of Aboriginal identity as expressed in clothing.

Sewing has been a form of self-expression for artist Lita Fontaine since her teens, when she made much of her clothing herself. Eventually she turned her needle skills into an investigation of her traditional culture. A jingle dress, a fairly modest garment with a long skirt adorned with clattering shells and appliquéd ribbon, is juxtaposed against four merry widow corsets that Fontaine has dyed, beaded and otherwise adorned. The corsets - red, yellow, black and white - are arrayed around a drum, also handmade by Fontaine. By marking the sacred four directions with seductive lingerie, the artist questions sexism in modern-day ceremonial practices. In the past, the artist had been informed that women were unwelcome in the drum circle and they most certainly did not make drums.

That said, I get the impression that this drum has been beaten plenty already.

Fontaine's other works in Native/American Apparel are wooden cut-outs of dresses painted with floral motifs. It's exciting to see a painter get away from the rectangular canvas; here, the paintings can be read both as dresses and as landscapes.

A display featuring a white-clad snowboarder is the work of KC Adams, who has been creating all-white worlds as a way of discussing issues of Aboriginal identity for several years now.

Close by are several photos from Adam's Cyborg Hybrid series. These works really shine, not just because of the bling-y wardrobes of her subjects. Adams has taken portraits of various people of mixed (hybrid) Aboriginal heritage wearing a white T-shirt customized by the artist with opalescent beads that spell out a racist or stereotypical statement about Aboriginal people. The phrases range from the inflammatory to the perverse and obscure - "How do you like my sweet grass?" Using digital techniques, Adams has enhanced each subject; the result is plastic, android-like perfection.

Adam's Cyborg Accessories, which combine ultra-modern functions with beadwork, fur and other materials traditionally associated with First Nations handicrafts, are displayed in a nearby case. Her beaded USB bracelet and rhinestone-encrusted hide iPod holder echo a grouping of kitsch objects, including a buckskin card holder branded with the iconic profile of an Indian chief and a small beaded wallet from the museum's collection.

Naïve cultural appropriation, such as high-heeled moccasins, may be something we can look upon with smug superiority now, but Native/American Apparel also shows that fusion may produce incisive political statements or astounding objects that transcend cultural categories.

[original article can be found at Uptown Magazine]

Until April 4, Costume Museum of Canada

Native/American Apparel looks at the relationship of fashion, clothing, and textile to the representation of Indigenous identities. By juxtaposing historical artifacts with current artworks, the exhibition encourages viewers to consider the role of the collection and exhibition of objects made by First Nations and Métis people in museums, particularly those objects made by women.

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