Style is an expression of self that weaves together our aesthetic sensibilities with the time, place, and culture in which we live. But for Black Americans, the style has long been more than a means of self-expression: It’s also been an essential way to survive systemic racism.
As Lewis Long, founder and owner of Long Gallery Harlem, told Artsy in a conversation, “Style, for Black people in America, began as a point of survival and liberty.”
Many Black Americans who escaped slavery created garments that typified the appearance of free men and women, giving them the ability to hide in plain sight as they built new lives from scratch. After the Civil War, the style became a means to chart a new path in society at a time when segregation limited access and mobility. The Black church offered a safe space for the devout to show out every Sunday.
“Despite oppression in the broader society, Black people were leaders and were completely free to express themselves grandly,” Long said.
By 1920, Black American art, culture, and style reached new heights as the Harlem Renaissance brought a generation of artists and intellectuals to the world stage. In celebration of the Harlem Renaissance’s 100th anniversary, Long Gallery Harlem and Harlem-based curator Souleo have partnered with Nordstrom to create “Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion, and Joy Through Fashion,” a multi-venue exhibition that includes an installation at Nordstrom’s flagship New York store and an online viewing room with Artsy.
The seeds of the exhibition were planted this June, as the Black Lives Matter movement went global in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, bringing about one of the largest civil rights protests in the history of the world.
“On the surface, art is futile against the forces that are trying to oppress us where we need policy changes, but I always go back and look at history and think about the civil rights movement and how art was always present during those times,” Souleo said. “James Brown was singing ‘I’m Black and I’m proud,’ which helped to galvanize people and feed them the spiritual nourishment that they needed. People need affirmation that we’ve been here before and we’re going to get through it again as we fight for freedom and all the changes that need to happen. We are going to continue to enjoy our lives.”
“Styling” brings together works by 15 contemporary Black artists from across the African diaspora:
Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola,
Felicia Megan Gordon,
Ruben Natal-San Miguel,
Ricky TheJones of AfrolipglossOriginals, and
Margaret Rose Vendryes.
To make the work of these artists more accessible to diverse audiences, “Styling” took shape as an in-store experience as well as an online viewing room. The exhibition features work in a wide array of media—including painting, photography, video, sculpture, fabric arts, and wearable art—and addresses themes of expression, rebellion, and joy while simultaneously creating economic opportunities for Black artists and institutions.
“Oftentimes the issues of social justice are related to economic justice,” Long said. He noted that the artists featured in the show were commissioned for their work and that Nordstrom will contribute a portion of the sales to the Howard University Art Gallery to honour the work of writer, philosopher, and educator Alain Locke, who is considered the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance.
In “Styling,” Harlem is the thread that connects the present to the past. “There’s a strong sense of community and pride in Harlem,” Long said. “There is a sense of legacy that’s not just the visual arts but covers every discipline. Going back to the 1890s, it was viewed as the vanguard. It is one of the most diverse, inclusive communities in the world.”
With this in mind, the artists Souleo has brought together form an eclectic mix representing both the African diaspora and Harlem itself. “It was important to think about the history, go back to the African continent to those roots that have been with us before slavery,” Souleo said.
This approach can be seen in the works of Willie Cole, who created a mask made from modern shoes inspired by the Dan-Ngere tribe of West Africa, as well as the paintings of Margaret Rose Vendryes, whose portraits of icons including Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and Billy Porter are shown wearing African masks as a nod to the continuity of Black style that exists across time and place.
The show’s theme of rebellion brings together the works of wearable artists including Harlem-based designer EPPERSON and Beau McCall, who have created gender-neutral garments that illustrate how Black style has long been used to challenge oppression, gender, and sexuality. EPPERSON, who views his work as armour, underscores the inherent relationship between fashion, style, and art in Black culture, as does Ricky TheJones of AfrolipglossOriginals, who makes his debut as an artist in the exhibition with a series of afro wigs.
The wigs brilliantly illustrate the interplay of the themes within the subject of Black hair—a distinct feature that has long been the site of extraordinary creativity, political resistance, and rapturous exultation. The afro, which became popular in America during the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, took root when brothers Kwame Brathwaite and Elombe Brath staged “Naturally ’62,” a fashion and beauty event in Harlem in January 1962 that quickly became an international phenomenon. With the rise of the natural hair movement over the past decade, the afro is back in vogue, celebrating the revolutionary power of Blackness as an innate quality.
“Styling” also honours the oft-unheralded contributions of Black women in Phenomenal Black Womanists (2020), a video by Dianne Smith. Smith, a Bronx native of Belizean descent, pays homage to both famous and everyday Black women, including her mother Merva Goldson, who donned an afro when she worked as a showroom model in the 1970s. The video, which features personal photographs, video clips, and archival materials dating back to the Harlem Renaissance, includes images from the Black Fashion Museum in Harlem and Ebony Magazine Fashion Fair, both of which elevated the work of Black designers and images of Black women at a time when mainstream representation was virtually nonexistent.
Taken as a whole, “Styling” is an extraordinary foray into the spirit of Black style, revealing the integral interplay between art, fashion, culture, and identity. Here, self-expression becomes a political act that demands to be seen, heard, and recognized as one of the greatest creative forces on earth.