Why is PEM displaying racist imagery in the Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love exhibition?
Patrick Kelly drew on the visual vocabulary of the Jim Crow south and his experiences of growing up in Mississippi in order to create fashion that transforms suffering and oppression into expressions of exuberance and joy. His own signature look – denim bibbed overalls – paid tribute to the laborers, tenant farmers, and civil rights activists of the American South while his designs for others included a line of red handkerchief dresses that were meant to reclaim the imagery of southern Black domestic servitude.
Kelly was an avid collector of racist objects and objects of Black representation – primarily ceramic figurines and dolls, including the character of a “golliwog,” a fictional Black children’s character from the late 1800s with exaggerated facial features. Kelly sought to subvert this harmful imagery by dismantling and repurposing its power. In the 1980s Kelly made the “golliwog” central to his brand by using it as his company’s logo and the motif across many of his runway designs. PEM has included a selection of Kelly’s collection of racist objects, as well as Black dolls made for his atelier by his mother and grandmother, to express the complex and powerful influences of race, power, and violence that directly informed the artist’s life and work.
How does the museum prepare visitors to encounter racist imagery in its galleries?
Visitors will encounter several signage content warnings to alert them to the presence of this anti-Black and racist material. Visitors are encouraged to avoid this section of the exhibition if they prefer to not engage with the content or find it too disturbing. Resources and opportunities for visitors to read, reflect, and respond are also provided within the gallery. A complete overview of gallery signage and wall text may be found HERE.
What did Patrick Kelly say about this racist material? Why was it so important to him?
Working in the spirit of the Black radical imagination, Kelly envisioned an aesthetic that represented the possibilities of what can and could be done by directly inserting race into the conversation. On the topic of using the “golliwog” imagery, he observed, “I get a lot of criticism from Blacks, and from whites and from everybody about who I am and my image. And with the Blacks I always say, if we can’t deal with where we’ve been, it’s gon’ be hard to go somewhere.”
By displaying racist imagery is PEM promoting racist beliefs?
No. Through the presentation of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, PEM is seeking to broaden understanding and appreciation of one of the most important Black fashion designers of the 20th century. Race and identity were central themes of Kelly’s work and career and PEM hopes to provide visitors with sufficient context and a sensitive interpretation of this work to promote an understanding of both the joyful and painful aspects of Kelly’s story.
What other Black artists use racist imagery in their work?
There are numerous examples of contemporary Black American artists subverting racist imagery in their work, including Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Faith Ringold, Robert Colescott, and Allison Saar.
How did PEM decide whether or not to display this racist imagery within the exhibition?
Last year, PEM’s curatorial team held cross-departmental focus groups and listening sessions at the museum with a variety of staff to gauge sensitivities and concerns about presenting this material. Curators consulted with previous venues of this traveling exhibition to better understand the public’s response and looked to the work of scholars and thinkers on the topic, including the scholar Sequoia Barnes, who has written:
“Those who remember Kelly tend to cite his signature buttons and bows, which adorned every garment in every season during the very brief height of his career, from 1985 until his untimely death due to complications from AIDS in 1990. But for me, the most important element of his designs is his use of racist imagery. A Black queer creative from Mississippi, Kelly took images that signified the stain of America’s foundations in brutality, displacement, and oppression and turned them into something that I can only describe as a radical Black camp aesthetic. Kelly was not afraid to go there, like the Black radical artists before him, such as Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, and Robert Colescott, who also reappropriated racist images of Black people to expose and confront what many of us are so desperate to avoid, those disgusting images and objects from America’s not-so-distant past: mammies and golliwogs, wide-smiling caricatures of minstrels eating watermelon, postcards showing little Black children being eaten by alligators. Kelly was no stranger to these images, having grown up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of the American hotbeds of violence during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement.”
What other resources can I explore to learn more about Patrick Kelly and the reappropriation of racist imagery?
De Young Museum Exhibition Website
Patrick Kelly at the Fashion Institute of Technology (1989)
Advising scholar Sequoia Barnes on Patrick Kelly
Black Dolls exhibition at the New_York Historical Society
Jim Crow Museum
The Kelly Initiative
Architectural Digest (2021 & 1989)
Museum At FIT lecture