The gaze. To look directly into the eyes of these black men, who are conveying power and vulnerability in a single gaze, moved me. Think about who normally stares out at you from paintings. White men of power – they loom over you, looking at you, putting you in your place. This is NOT all of art, but it is the majority of what we have seen on school field trips to art museums and in Art History classes.
I caught myself looking away from their faces. Have I really been so socially conditioned to avoid the gaze of black men and women? It was a reminder to be and do better.
Kehinde places his portraits against patterned backgrounds (usually). Whereas a portrait of George Washington might include a bunch of minute details around him, drapery, a table, a sword, etc. Your eyes are distracted and encouraged to take in the other details of the painting to understand the subject’s story. Kehinde pushes you to look at the people. You’ll get bored just looking at the backdrops. To appreciate the painting, you have to engage with the subject of the painting, you have to look at their faces, their clothes. You have to see them as PEOPLE. #BlackLivesMatter
— SAM (@iheartSAM) May 6, 2016
Museums and questions of racial equity, representation, and inclusion is an area of interst to me. No, interest is too weak of a word. I want to change the paradigm of museums with regard to racial equity. MOHAI in Seattle recently exhibited the Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop. The exhibit’s closing celebration featured a fashion show about the legacy of hip-hop fashion. This video gives you a taste of the exhibit, the fashion show, and the philosophies behind the curators and fashion show producer. A theme I hear is “helping change the narrative” and making sure more people feel reflected (both their faces and their experiences) in this region’s history and culture.
So what does all this have to do with sewing?
On the street car ride back to work, awash in #MMMay16 photos, I started thinking about how we sewists (mostly women) pose to show off our cloths. I thought about how models pose for fashion spreads or ads. Rarely do women stare back at you. Usually only a few brands or high fashion models do, because it makes an impact.
Most women look down or look away. Removing themselves, highlighting the clothes. They slouch, or pose in a way that conveys uncertainty, demureness, passivity. Go ahead, look through Pinterest in the “Women’s Fashion” category.
I acknowledge that calling out Me Made May participants isn’t really fair – we all come from a variety of backgrounds, skill levels, photographic skill levels, etc. There are legitimate concerns about privacy online, which is an argument for looking away or hiding your face. Some of us are shy, and that can come across in the pictures (I’m thinking back to my first year of MMM and how hesitant I was about showing off my clothes). And yet…
Body language is a form of communication. It tells a story (see Kehinde Wiley’s quote above). There is is research about how your posture can affect your mental health and mood…and your identity.
Posing in cosplay is all about conveying your characters’ stories and emotions. A sexy pose will work for some characters, but not others. Or if you do, say, plan a Mulan boudoir shoot, it changes her story. You can play with expectations or focus on embodying the story that already exists. Fashion spreads are the same thing (thinking to what I learned from the Top Model reality show).
I don’t want to tell you how to pose or insist there is a right or wrong way. I do want to encourage curiosity and inquiry – why is that your go-to pose? Why do we have certain reactions to different poses and direction of gaze? Are you ok with the story you tell with your poses?
What social scripts about race and gender might we be adopting unconsciously when we post for photos? Are these scripts we want to keep replicating or is this an opportunity to disrupt?
I love this meme of the sculpture with a smart phone. When others gaze at her, she is beautiful, when she gazes at herself or controls the gaze she is called “vain”.
When I pose imitating fashion and beauty standards, do I still feel like me? If I don’t, am I ok with that? Again, thinking of cosplay and fashion shoots, it can be quite fun to take on different personas and tell stories with clothes and poses. I think, for me, the key difference is intention and mindfulness.
What story am I unintentionally telling with my default posture that is most widely shared on social media? Who am I? (Rhetorical question of the epoch.)
I have said a lot here. A lot is on my mind. Power, privilege, equity, identity.
Thanks for reading and thinking with me.
*written on 5/6/16