Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named Fabiola Jean–Louis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.
Madame Beavoir’s Painting
The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.
Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).
The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.
Marie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich); Passing and Violin of the Dead. All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .