‘About Decolonising Dress/Fashion Objects in South African Museums’ by Erica de Greef

In this blog post, which is based on my recently-completed PhD thesis, I look at the histories and current conditions and dispositions of the sartorial collections of three formerly separate museums in South Africa. Although they amalgamated in 1999, each separate sartorial collection remains siloed, and the effects of racist segregation imposed on its objects over time, persists almost twenty years later.

I use the notion of fashion to trouble the distinction between ‘fashion’ as a modern, dynamic and largely Western system, and ‘dress’ as the ‘traditional’ and unchanging practices of sartoriality in Africa – two opposing concepts that are persistently applied in South African museums. Where ‘fashion’ signifies the participation in a contemporary expression of global modernity, the forms of agency, mutability and historicity applied to ‘fashion’ have been and continue to be denied in the collection, classification and curation of African dress/fashion at large.

I would like to propose new ways of thinking about the challenges faced by these museums in relation to their sartorial collections, and more broadly, the futures of these objects in changing and changed socio-political environments.  I propose the application and articulation of a decolonial method as a mode of ‘refashioning’ the sartorial dilemmas faced by these museums.

isishweshwe-exhibition-slave-lodge-museum-cape-town-e1542048413638.jpg
Isishweshwe Exhibition, Slave Lodge Museum, Cape Town.

Drawing on the materiality of the sartorial objects as sites for the intimate exploration of lived experiences, agency and embodiment, I focus not only on traces of embodiment (scuffs, wear and tear, or efforts of mending or repair) that render sartorial objects in museums as particular forms of archive, but also on the bodies of wearers as engaged in the making of subjective, gendered, cultural, professional, or political identities through the material artefacts.

The use of dress/fashion as acts of personal, and at times political expression imprint the sartorial objects in museum collections with archival potency – the objects proffer an encyclopedic archive of agency, expression, feelings, moods, personal and political motivations, and histories both intimate and public. These objects present multiple, and mutable possibilities for re-reading in the present.

To rethink sartorial collections as records of daily decisions made in response to the practicalities of comfort, occasion, function and mood; or the imposition of orders and orderliness; or the impulses of extravagance, sadness or delight, is to encounter the shirt, apron or scarf in the museum as performative and subjective, both together with, and beyond, their inherited taxonomies of history, design and culture. As palimpsests of identities, the sartorial collections in museums are considerably rich resources for future researchers, scholars and curators.

Ethnogallery Iziko Museum Cape Town
Ethnogallery, Iziko Museum, Cape Town.

 As a means to remedy an often, deficient situation in museums, where certain stories or dreams have been forgotten or were never remembered, acts of remediation can be used to experiment with alternative ways of describing, interpreting and displaying museum objects and absences, so that new and different stories can emerge. Key to a decolonial re-writing of the past, is a commitment to the human that plays out in a range of alternative curatorial practices. Sartorial objects within museums (and some notable absences) are significant and critical sites for these re-negotiations with the past in the present, via the remembered, recalled and even, re-embodied notion of the wearer as agentive and subjective.

As African public intellectual Achille Mbembe points out in his decolonising project, “we are not just dealing with, or erasing the past; instead, we are confronting the traces of the past as they emerge in the now, and importantly, we are confronting the ways in which these traces impact our future thinking.”  A strong advocate for the notion of African futures, Mbembe describes the economic and socio-political productivity of the interface between Africa (its youth, culture and creativity) and the increasing presence, uptake and affordances of technology that has seen an accelerated pace of new forms of knowledge development from Africa, and an unprecedented “entanglement of the deep past with notions of present and future imaginaries.” For a long time, the question of the future was not on the agenda when dealing with the questions of Africa. Mbembe argues that, “the plasticity of digital forms speaks powerfully to the plasticity of African precolonial cultures and to ancient ways of working with representation and mediation, of folding realities.” The entanglement or ‘collage’ of humans with objects and technologies, suggests Mbembe, is particularly pertinent to shared and similar approaches to both boundaries of perception and co-existent notions of time and space, equally common to traditional and virtual forms of thinking.

Fashion thinking brings to the forefront, the embodied, subjective and engaged identity of the wearer, and is useful in offering new ways in which to imagine alternate epistemologies, challenge the Western ontologies at work in museums and transcend conventional oppositions between past and future, object and meaning, and the local and global. Because dress/fashion consists of both the material object, and the shifting, and changing socio-political identities of its wearers, the sartorial collections in museums are powerful sites for the disruption of representations of the past, and for future imaginaries.

Ova-Himba, Kyle Weeks, Nambia, 2013
Ova-Himba, Kyle Weeks, Nambia, 2013.

The Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary creative collectives, The Sartists, fashioning of absence through visual narratives of historic self-styling, re-script both perceptions and records of notions of community, via new and imaginatively ‘re-embodied’ subjectivities. The contemporary writing of texts that were never created, takes particular shape when written by voices and shaped by bodies that had been excluded from the original archives. What this implies for Iziko Museums and their dress/fashion archives, is to invite new voices for authenticating and authoring renewed, alternative and altogether rewritten narratives that could contribute to a range of radical sartorial disruptions within the museum. I propose that a dress/fashion museology, aimed at refashioning African pasts and imagining Afro-futures, that invites new forms of inclusive knowledge production, and re-written sartorial histories, can prompt processes of decolonising within South African museums via a contemporary discourse of Africa dress/fashion. The provocations above, will I hope, go some way to contribute towards these developments.

Sartists-Sport-Series-Andile-Buka-3-of-11
The Sartists, http://www.notedman.com/the-sartists/

Mbembe, A. (2016) Knowledge Futures and the State of the Humanities https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6p8pUU_VH0

The Sartists, http://www.the-sartists.com/

Erica de Greef is the Senior Curator at the Zeitz MOCAA Costume Institute (launching end-2018), which is the culmination of years of dedicated work on the framing, developing and showcasing of South African fashion within a global network. She aims to share the powerful potential of exploring stories of a fashioned Africa in the 21stcentury, through ongoing, interactive and publically engaged exhibitions and events that introduce not only the objects of fashion, but the subjects of fashion, the methods of fashion and the continually diversifying, expressions of fashion.
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