I visited Chicago in 2018 on a self guided tour of its architecture, museums and historical sites. One of those museums was the DuSable Museum of African American History, established in 1961 to promote the contributions and experiences of African Americans. It is housed in an unassuming building, filled with well laid out galleries that take you through some of the most turbulent time periods in our shared history.
“Rewriting History – Paper Gowns and Photography” was an art installation that filled the first gallery I entered. It provided a ride through antiquity and imagination, and is among the most emotionally impactful art installations I have walked through. When art intersects with social consciousness, it can take you to powerful places.
Fabiola Jean-Louis is mixed media artist who was born in Haiti, and raised in New York and Brooklyn. She created life-sized paper gowns and staged photography to tell African-American history in the trappings of 15th-18th century Europe. Her goal was to use beauty as a vehicle to discuss ugly truths regarding the African Diasporic experience and open a dialog into social change.
The “Tudor Dress” stood near the center of the room. Again, this is made entirely from paper.
All the mounted pieces in this exhibit were presented in heavy baroque frames. The models are wearing paper gowns created by the artist, which are then photographed. The final technique is archival pigment print on hot press paper. I cropped the frame out of some of my photos in order to enlarge the detail.
The first frame below is titled “Madame Leroy,” who is wearing an ornate triptych.
The next frame is a detail shot titled “Rest In Peace” and shows the devil in the detail – a black man who has been lynched from a tree bursting into bloom.
Some of these works drew me back again and again. This pair struck me for the subtlety of the basket of ginned cotton in the lower right corner, and the details of the violin. The first frame is titled “Passing,” the next is titled “Violin of the Dead.”
“Marie Antoinette is Dead” was another image that was not as it first appeared. Note the African doll under her arm, and the voodoo dolls in the corner of the second frame.
There were some stand alone pieces, like this Elizabethan inspired dress (lower left), and a stomacher (lower right) entitled “Garden and Tea”, a multi-media piece which includes gold leaf, crystals and shimmer trim. There was another stomacher and two pair of papermache shoes in this exhibit that I did not photograph.
Of all the pieces in this exhibit, this one had the greatest visceral impact on me. Sometimes art needs to be painful in order to make its point.
Titled “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting,” the detail shot shows the pattern on the back of her dress and its correlation to the lash marks on the back of the slave she is painting.
This last work is titled “They’ll Say We Enjoyed It” which says all it needs to.
This blog was originally posted as “Yesterday’s Main Street and the Dusable Museum” in August 2019. It was updated in February 2021 for Black History Month, to focus on this singular exhibit and includes photos not previously seen here.