MFA Exhibit Explores How Dress Correlates With Identity

April 19, 2019 | By Catherine Titcomb

“Made Visible Contemporary South African Fashion and Identity” is one of two fashion exhibits on display at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, both of which deal with how dress correlates with identity. “Made Visible” uses clothing to introduce South African communities who were repressed during the 1948-1994 apartheid and who continue to fight for their rights amidst lasting wealth and power inequalities. These communities include sociolinguistic groups such as the Xhosa, Ndebele, and Zulu, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community, women of color and rural citizens. The clothing in the exhibit represents the expression of individuality and the challenging of social structures, including class and cultural divisions.

Photos by Catherine Titcomb

The exhibit is relatively small and features both photographs and physical garments. Duality by Nandipha Mntambo, which flanks the exhibit on the left wall and is composed of two figures, appears at first glance to be a replica of the Nikes of Samothrace. In reality, cowhide adorned with hooves flies out behind each figure instead of marble wings. The initial attraction caused by the likeness to Nike of Samothrace dissolves as the hooves and skin come into focus. The way the cowhide forms the shape of a human body is meant to blur the lines between human and animal, thereby drawing attention to deeper meanings such as the blurring of the lines between attraction and repulsion, white and black, male and female, and the other increasingly arbitrary boundaries the exhibit as a whole deals with.

Photos by Catherine Titcomb

Laduma Ngxokolo’s Men’s Ensemble contrasts the natural colors and texture of the cowhide with bright patterns and tailored finishings. The mannequin-modeled ensemble is, in a word, loud. The varied patterns and modern colors are not out of place on today’s runway, but they are drawn from historical fashions and techniques of different South African groups. The pants and sweater set probably contradicts many people’s ideas of African dress. Other outfits featured in the exhibit such as the beaded fringe bra and skirt in Untitled (Heritage Day)by Sethembile Msezane and the dreamcatcher and feather headpiece in Bukhosi I, Parktown by Zanele Muholi contrast each other and reveal the many styles, and thus cultures, of South Africa, and Africa as a whole.

Photos by Catherine Titcomb

While this disparity between pieces seems to create a disjointed exhibit owing to the different identities and stories of the artists, it is the shared challenging of norms during and after the apartheid and the emergence of repressed identities which unites the pieces. The exhibit has at its center three mannequins placed into a powerful stance which demand the power and attention historically denied to these groups. 

Photos by Catherine Titcomb

The exhibit is a must-see and can even serve as a prelude to Gender Bending Fashion, another fashion exhibit currently on display at the MFA. Made Visible runs until May 12th.

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