In fashion, there is constant bicker about diversity in race, size and gender, with the media and pivotal figures of popular culture endorsing one view over the other. Still, in the heated midst of discussions on diversity, a hierarchal structure is ever-pervading. A structure that allows fashion’s currently most-lorded Demna Gvasalia to present an all-white cast on the catwalks of Vetements and Balenciaga sans resistance, but with fashion critic exaltation. A structure which prohibits others from doing the opposite with such ease— as seen with Zac Posen’s almost exclusive cast of models of colour for his African-princess-inspired AW16 collection which led outrage to ravage the comment sections of certain media outlets.
Zac Posen Autumn/Winter 2016-17 collection. Photo by Vogue Runway
An Olympian can transition into a Vanity Fair cover girl, in front of millions, but the struggle for ordinary folk to do similar is still as problematic as before. Diversity in size is promoted and plus-size garments are produced, only to eventually be ostracised to dedicated corners of stores— a modern day apartheid of size. As an emerging fashion photographer whose work challenges exclusivity, token diversity, and stereotypes of Blackness, Ronan McKenzie asserts: “Having plus sized sections in shops is like having a 'black authors' section in bookshops. It’s great you sell black authors, but why aren’t they just included under the usual headings of Art, Fiction or Travel?”
Inclusiveness is supposedly strived for, but exclusivity and hierarchy still reign, albeit covertly. The very emphasis or attention placed on the excluded to initiate supposed inclusivity, in effect ostracises them further from the norm. However, if we continue to ignore these hierarchies, they cannot be dismantled and rectified. This is particularly the case when it comes to the distribution of recognition.
In the world of fine art, this hierarchy of recognition is often more distinguishable than the increasingly democratised realm of fashion. When you type 20th Century Art into your favourite search engine, the names most likely to rise to the top of your results are Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and David Hockney, amongst others. Trailing behind those search results are artists who have also made contributions and are often pivotal influences to those famed and regarded as faces of 20th Century Art. However, their impact is left under-recognised. They become mere footnotes and asterisked “see the small print” referrals. Their contributions are silently noted, adopted and appropriated in volumes disproportionate to their acknowledgement.
In spite of this, a new project seeks to remedy the collective amnesia suffered when it comes to recognising the critical contributions made by artists of African, Asian, and South American heritage. The “Black Artists and Modernism” project, launched as a partnership between the University of the Arts London and Royal Academician Sonia Boyce MBE, is confronting the hierarchal structure of recognition in art through education. As the first to catalogue works by Black artists held in Britain’s public collections, the team of artists and researchers are bringing awareness to such artists’ impact on modern art.
Over the next three years, the £700 thousand project will not only take researchers to far-flung conventional stages for art, but also to hospitals as the National Health Service (NHS) is one of the largest holders of British art. So far, the team have begun to forage the depths of Britain’s galleries and museums for work by artists of African and Asian heritage. The Tate-supported endeavour is a tremendous undertaking, especially given time-lapse and how vaguely documented unearthed pieces tend to be. However, the project will produce a desperately needed resource, which sheds light on under-recognised influential artists, previously shun from the art world's hierarchal spotlight.
In addition, the habitual tendency for emphasis to be placed on the ethnicity of an artist, as opposed to their work’s wider contextual importance or message, is something which Boyce and her team seek to challenge especially. An influential artist in her own right, Boyce acknowledges the paradox in the project identifying artists by their ethnicity, but states that if the process is not initiated “a silence will remain about their work.” In this way, the paradox has to be embraced in order to produce change.
With a wealth of information and social media at our fingertips, we all have the power and opportunity to dismantle long-established sociocultural hierarchies in their own way. “Black Artists and Modernism” serves as a blueprint for the wider creative industries, highlighting the necessity of a collective, of emerging and established figures and brands, to challenge hierarchal structures. The initiative illustrates how established and emerging figures need to boldly call out discrepancies as they occur, understanding that we cannot change something we refuse to acknowledge.
Words: Jamal George-Sharpe
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu