21c's 'Dress Up, Speak Up' Demands to be Seen

"Dress Up, Speak Up" is both compelling and resonant as the artists attempt to render what they know to be true, both in history and personally — and oftentimes, both

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click to enlarge "Three Kings" by Bisa Butler - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
"Three Kings" by Bisa Butler

The figures within 21c Museum Hotel’s Dress Up, Speak Up: Regalia and Resistance demand visibility as they lay out personal, social and political issues. The exhibition greets viewers when they first walk in to the hotel’s lobby, with works displayed on multiple floors. 

Each piece grapples with contemporary identity by using elements such as costuming, makeup, self-adornment and embellishment. By reaching backward into history, these figures often seem to reach forward in an act of reclamation to a past denied by the white gaze.

Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and museum director, explained during a recent tour that this exhibit contains several references to history revealing experiences held by varying cultures that have been dominated or altogether erased by the legacy of colonialism. 

“Those histories that become embedded in both personal and public memory eventually seep to the surface and often are expressed in the way we dress or present ourselves,” Stites says. “One of the artists in the show, Titus Kaphar, he specifically describes this work as ‘reconstructed histories’ — taking Renaissance and old master paintings and telling a different side of the story. 

“He says, ‘In the absence of adequate facts, our hearts rifle through memories, foraging for satisfactory fictions.’ ” 

Kaphar, a MacArthur Fellow, recognizes that black history has been depicted visually in Western art as “enslaved, in servitude or impoverished,” as he cites in the exhibition’s description. In his work, he deconstructs that history and in doing so, uncovers shoved-away truths of the past. From these revelations, those who have been made invisible become visible. 

He’s known for The Jerome Project, which consists of a series of portraits that began when Kaphar was researching his father’s prison records only to find 99 other men that shared his first and last name. 

“An Icon for Destiny,” on display at 21c,  runs parallel to that work. As much as Kaphar’s work sought to unearth what had been ignored, his focus hadn’t been on women. In “Destiny,” a woman’s entire figure is covered in a thick layer of tar. Hands in her lap, her head is wrapped in an orange scarf and fabric of the same shade is draped around her legs. 

“It’s black women who bear the burden historically,” Stites says of the work. “And the name Destiny, he wanted it to be — ‘There is another Destiny, you’re not confined to going to jail or being someone’s servant.’ ”

The blackened tar is juxtaposed with a lightly-colored background — what appears to be an intricately patterned mandala-esque wallpaper. Posed regally, Kaphar shows her deep reverence. 

On an adjacent wall is an homage to Eric Garner, a black man who died in 2014 after a New York City Police Department officer put him a chokehold. Fahamu Pecou’s realistically rendered painting depicts a black man wearing sagging jeans and sneakers. He hunches over, elbows resting on his thighs. Backdropped by off-white, the figure appears to be transcending. Light lines punctuated by dots orbit around him — meant to be blessings, according to Pecou. 

Above his head in red crayon-like print is the title of the work. “Breathe.” You can almost feel the figure inhale and exhale. 

Other highlights include Jefferson Pinder’s film Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise), tucked away in a corner room on the first floor. Beverly McIver poses with her childhood doll in dreamy, selfie-like painted portraits. And one of Nick Cave’s surreal “Soundsuits” stands tall. 

Bisa Butler’s quilted “Three Kings” is colorful and vibrant. Through using the traditional form of a quilt, she weaves historical photographs into a new context. Though Stites says the three black men depicted were likely from the Midwest or on a farm, Butler transforms them by giving them detailed and dapper clothing. 

As a whole, Dress Up, Speak Up is both compelling and resonant as the artists attempt to render what they know to be true, both in history and personally — and oftentimes, both. 

Dress Up, Speak Up: Regalia and Resistance opens with a reception Aug. 30 and runs through July 2020. More info: 21cmuseumhotels.com/cincinnati

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