L: From "Mfengu" at Axis Gallery (photo: NYTimes)
R: Jean-Louis Scherrer (French, founded 1962). Coat, autumn/winter 1990–1991
Multicolored rooster, duck, and fowl feathers; Friedrich's Optik. Eyeglasses, 2004. Black acetate-plastic. Metropolitan Museum of Art
via NYTimes: Critic's Notebook
When Fabric Is Where Culture Meets Style [excerpts]
By MARGO JEFFERSON
Published: December 13, 2005
Western and non-Western (or "ethnic") clothes used to be defined in terms of fashion versus costume or national dress. Fashion was dynamic and inventive, eager to borrow from all kinds of cultures. Dress and costume were bound first and foremost to tradition; shaped of ritual and social practice committed to cultural preservation, not change.
Then again, the divisions between art and craft used to be absolutely fixed as well; likewise those between high and popular or vernacular art. As recently as the 1980's, visitors to museums were sternly warned not to view exhibitions of work from Africa, Asia or South America as "art" per se, but rather as collections of objects for religious and social use.
Of course there is historical truth here. But truth is much more varied and mutable on both sides than we once thought. Context matters. [...]
Last week I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute to see "Rara Avis," an exhibition of clothes and accessories from the collection of Iris Barrel Apfel. Mrs. Apfel is much more than a connoisseur, she is an authoritative collector of antique fabric, a restoration consultant and, with her husband, the founder of Old World Textiles. [...]
A few days after seeing "Rara Avis," I went to the Axis Gallery in Chelsea to see "Mfengu: Personal Objects and Textiles from South Africa." It is an elegantly small collection. Skirts, cloaks and headscarves hang on the wall: this is dress as art. It is refined minimalism. (My colleague Holland Cotter cited the delicate severity of Agnes Martin.) The patterns of detailed, whimsical beading made me also think of Paul Klee. And the black headscarves look like constellations, with patterns of pale thread and white buttons that form circular and geometric shapes. [...]
Western fashion lives by the myth of individuality even when it is dictated ("In: Purple. Out: Turquoise"), duplicated (ready-to-wear clothes) or mass-produced with a brand (Stella McCartney for H & M). How little we know about the individuality of non-Western clothes, especially among groups determined to preserve their traditions. Joan Broster, the fashion historian who collected South African clothes, was a pioneer in the field.
Iris Barrel Apfel is truly an original. I expected that, and it delighted me. What I didn't expect - and what delighted me just as much - was the originality to be found among these rural South African women whose names we will never know.