March 24, 2021 - May 26, 2021, curated by Yelaine Rodriguez
Featuring artists: Elia Alba, Albany Andaluz, Renee Cox, Lelanie Foster, Maroon World (Travis Gumbs and Cynthia Cervantes Gumbs), Ariella Imena, Carla Lopez, Fabiola Jean-Louis, Wilfredo Suárez, Demi Vera
The photographers in Radical Elegance are subverting and actively challenging fashion photography as a genre, the elitist practices in the field, and the historical, technical, and stylistic approaches by creating their own. The photographers here are taking charge of their narratives, documenting their communities, and shedding light on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) cultures. They are capturing the tranquility and exuberance of BIPOC life: communities that historically mainstream publications erase from fashion’s purview. In doing so, they are radically reshaping the discourse within studio and street photography, bringing visibility to vernacular cultures.
While fashion photography dates to the mid-nineteenth century, it gains popularity in the early twentieth century as an advertising tool, as fashion increasingly becomes more accessible to the public. Historically fashion photography as a practice and genre is grounded on fantasy and unattainability for only the privileged of society, while excluding Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Fashion photographers often favor the elites and socialites as their muse, a trend that continues today. This preference cemented in the early days of fashion photography reflects the inequities within our community and illustrates the deprivation of BIPOC participation in society. The two leading advocates of fashion photography being Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, beginning in the 1900s, took one hundred and twenty-six years to hire the first Black fashion photographer.
Together, the photographers in Radical Elegance push the boundaries generated by dominant narratives in mainstream media to a place where vernacular cultures and high fashion co-exist. Their work presents the intersections and overlapping realities of hybrid cultural identities. Employing photography as a storytelling and community-building tool, these artists examine through a political lens the development of Black and Brown fashioned identities. They highlight the beauty and style of BIPOC communities while simultaneously rejecting the historical colonial gaze that has overwhelmingly shaped the visual production of these marginalized communities on a global scale.
The photographs in the exhibition have a nostalgic sentiment. They bring forth cultural references within BIPOC cultures, reimagined through the perspective of the fashion photographer. This virtual exhibit puts this collection of works in conversation with the archives, demonstrating how the diaspora creates a cultural language of its own. Collectively they address discussions of beauty and style, identity and race, and sexuality through gendered images.
For example, the series Estilo Propio (2018) by Bronx-based Dominican photographer Carla Lopez presents a woman adorned with pink rolos (hair curlers) and bright colored bodega flowers. Here, the subject and her rollers become a symbol frequently regarded as a fundamental Dominican act of self-fashioning, similar to Washington Height’s own Dominican performer Maluca in her music video “El Tigeraso” (2009). The rollers are not viewed as an oppressive item from gendered beauty standards, but as a cultural marker and identifier.
Like the rolos within Dominican beauty shops, the durag regularly takes center stage amongst Black men as representations of pride. Within one of the wedding portraits of the collective Maroon World, which was featured in Vogue Magazine, a groom wears a white durag, complementing the bride's luxuriant Tehuana wedding dress-inspired headpiece. The modern twist to the traditional Tehuana wedding attire alludes to Self-portrait as a Tehuana (1943) by Frida Kahlo, exemplifying the materialization of hybrid cultural identities.
The durag, a common style accessory and fashion muse for both men and women in pop culture, has also been used as a political gesture, illustrating the erasure of Black bodies within religion and in high fashion. One of the most notable examples was the Halo-Durag worn by Solange at the Met Gala themed “Heavenly Bodies” (2018). Durags also become a statement of Black resilience and their ability to conceive emblems of their own.
The selected body of works in Radical Elegance demonstrates, through fashion photography, how identities take various forms. Collectively, these photographers document cultural memory, reshaping the narratives around beauty and style. With their stylistic choices and fashioning of Black and Brown diasporic bodies, they are formulating an attainable visual language that mirrors the realities and cultural identity of BIPOC. By centering the community within the frame, they remove the fantasy that makes it unattainable, carving a place for BIPOC to exist. These images speak to the diaspora and bring visibility to these marginalized groups to actively challenge and reimagine the idea behind fashion photography.
Born in The Bronx in 1990, where she lives and works today, Yelaine Rodriguez is an Afro-Dominican United Statesian artist, educator, curator, and cultural organizer. She received a B.F.A. in Fashion Design from The New School (2013) and an M.A. in Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Museum Studies from New York University (2021). Rodriguez conceptualizes wearable art and site-specific installations, drawing connections between Black cultures in the Caribbean and the United States through wearables, video installations, performance, and photography. Her interfaith and intercountry narratives examine identity and race.
Rodriguez’s curatorial practice centers on the fundamental contributions of African Diasporic communities. Her latest curatorial projects include “Afro Syncretic” at NYU (2019), “Resistance, Roots, and Truth” at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (2018), and “(under)REPRESENT(ed)” at Parsons (2017). From 2015-2018, Rodriguez realized La Lucha: Dominican Republic and Haiti, One Island, an art collective that explores Dominican-Haitian relations through exhibits, artist panels, and interactive conferences.
Rodriguez is the recipient of the Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship from the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (2017), Wave Hill Van Lier Fellowship (2018), The Latinx Project Curatorial Fellowship at NYU (2019), and Bronx Museum AIM Program (2020). She has been included in exhibitions at Longwood Art Gallery, American Museum of Natural History, Wave Hill, Rush Art Gallery, El Centro Cultural de España, and Centro León Biennial XXVII in the Dominican Republic. Rodriguez’s works feature in Artsy, Hyperallergic, Vogue, and Aperture Magazine. Rodriguez is an Adjunct Instructor at the New School and New York University.
Image courtesy of Elia Alba