2018 Katzenberger Art History Intern Brianne Chapelle and the Crafts of African Fashion
(The following blog post was written by Brianne Chapelle)
My name is Brianne Chapelle and I am one of the 2018 Katzenberger Art History Interns. I am a recent graduate of the Art History and Communication Studies department at McGill University in Montréal. While at McGill, I was a research assistant in the theatre’s costume shop doing research on historical fashion and on textiles. I was then, and still am, trying to merge my interest in historical and contemporary fashion with my interest in art history. To further my knowledge and career goals, I came to Washington, D.C. after my graduation ceremony for my first day as a Katzenberger Art History Intern at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) to intern on the Crafts of African Fashion research initiative led and curated by Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye, Cultural Specialist at CFCH. I am lucky to be interning on a project that merges my interests in fashion and art history at the Smithsonian with a team of people doing fascinating research on contemporary African fashion and the heritage arts.
The research initiative had its launch at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event produced by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Presented on the National Mall each year since 1967, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is a research-based, curated presentation of contemporary, living cultural traditions with varying thematic foci each year. This year, the festival focused on cultural heritage enterprises, particularly those of Armenia and Catalonia, along with smaller programs such as On the Move: Migration and Creativity, Crafts of African Fashion, and the Sisterfire Roadwork 40th Anniversary Concert.
The Crafts of African Fashion project is one framed around the idea of sustaining the heritage arts in African fashion, and how that happens through educational forums and through inter-generational inheritance of various crafts traditions. The Crafts of African Fashion’s centralized presence at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival was in the Marketplace where six African artisans convened to sell their work and to display, for the public, heritage arts from Africa including Asante Kente cloth weaving, Hausa and Tuareg leather traditions, Ewe Kente cloth weaving, Adinkra stamping, batik technique, and indigo dyeing. Part of the ambit was for the artisans to lead educational workshops and demonstrations for the public on their craft. It was only fitting that many of the artisans worked professionally in education or as educators in some form or another – something I am writing about for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Blog. When the artisans were able to make the cultural traditions tangible through these workshops, the excitement of children and adults alike was both palpable and something special to behold.
There were also two programmatic aspects of the Crafts of African Fashion launch. On June 30th, we hosted Wearing Wakanda: Global African Identities and the Crafts of African Fashion, a panel discussion on the role of the heritage arts in African fashion at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA). The next day, we hosted African Fashion and Film: A Look at the Current and Future State of African Fashion, a screening of stunning African fashion film shorts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
I was able to assist in many aspects of the curatorial preparations that went into these events and to learn first-hand about the work that goes into producing a research-based presentation, much like an art exhibition. My eyes were trained to recognize and identify various African craft techniques and I learned an entirely new fashion vocabulary. I learned a great deal about the arts of adornment in Africa, particularly of the Asante and Ewe in Ghana and the Tuareg in Niger having spent a lot of time with artisans from these groups and regions. Throughout, I worked with incredible, knowledgeable mentors and artists including Dr. N’Diaye, the Crafts of African Fashion coordinator Shay Stevens, Smithsonian Predoctoral Fellow Rebecca Fenton, artisans Soumana Saley, Kofi and Kwasi Asare, Cynthia Sands, Chapuchi Bobbo Ahiagble, and fashion designers Mimi Plange and Kibonen.
Since the festival, I have been working on research for the next phase of the Crafts of African Fashion initiative and assisting my supervisor as she prepares to submit the manuscript for her book project, The Will to Adorn: African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity, forthcoming next year. I have read the manuscript (which is excellent!) and done photo research for the book project. Reading it made me want to write a book one day.
Overall, I learned a great deal from the many artisans and designers I met, in addition to everything I learned from my inspirational mentor, Dr. N’Diaye, and the Crafts of African Fashion team. Being at the Smithsonian for the summer has been a true education. I am very grateful to all who have made my experience here so wonderfully eye-opening.