Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris @ DIA

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris,  1918 – 1948, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Cubism wasn’t born of a manifesto (Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque tended to leave the blah-blah to others), but Cubism’s outsized influence inspired the spilling of much ink as artists and critics sought to explain it, support it, modify it, or, inevitably and however prematurely, proclaim its demise. In the week of the armistice that ended World War One, artists Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka, Le Corbusier) penned Aprés le Cubisme, announcing the supplanting of the old style with what they dubbed Purism, an attempt at bringing order to the fractured post-war world, and to the jumble of the art world in particular — a world whose undisputed capital was Paris.

Café, Paris, 1929, Archibald John Motley, Jr., American, 1891 – 1981, Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase, Ernest & Rosemarie Kanzler Foundation Fund. © Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. All reserved rights 2023/Bridgeman Images.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris 1918-1948, the Detroit Institute of Art’s current exhibit of graphic works from its collection borrows its name from the Purist manifesto but sets its scene with the sole painting in the show, a recent-ish acquisition by Archibald Motley from 1929, Café, Paris, which depicts an archetypical scene of a Montmartre watering hole populated by various bohemian types. A Black American painter, Motley was one ingredient in the multicultural stew of artists that populated the City of Light between the wars. He’s joined in this exhibit by, among others, Mexico’s Diego Rivera, seen here breaking away from his own version of Cubism with still lifes that suggest the more naturalistic style he’d eventually bring to the DIA’s Detroit Industry murals; Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz, one of a few artists here who kept some version of Cubism alive despite reports of its passing; and the Jewish Russian Marc Chagall, whose etching L’Apparition, a scene of a winged muse descending upon a self-portrait of the painter at his easel, is a secular Annunciation. Also here is Tsugouharu Foujita, whose delicate line drawing Head of a Girl is both modern and reflective of the graphic traditions of his native Japan. The drawing pairs nicely with the small watercolor portrait of A Young Girl by Marie Laurencin, the only painter among the women artists in the show; the others are all photographers: Berenice Abbott, Gertrude Fehr, Dora Maar, and the German-American Ilsa Bing, “queen of the Leica,” who contributes several intriguing compositions. The genderfluid Claude Cahun is represented by a riveting self-portrait as well.

Self Portrait with Leica, 1931, printed 1992, Ilse Bing, American, 1899 – 1998. Gelatin silver print. Gift of the Estate of Ilse Bing Wolff. © Estate of Isle Bing


Self-Portrait, ca. 1927  Claude Cahun, French, 1894-1954. Gelatin silver print. Founders Society Purchase, Albert and Peggy de Salle Charitable Trust and the DeRoy Photographic Acquisition Endowment Fund.

Dominating one wall of the exhibition’s first room is a color mock-up for a mural by Raoul Dufy, a project called The Spirit of Electricity, created for display at the 1937 World’s Fair (and now in the Museum of the City of Paris). Gifted to the DIA in 1999, the large color sketch has some resonance with the Rivera Industry murals; turbines, trains, and other modern marvels are depicted, though Dufy is apparently less interested in the technology of electricity, which he associates with the power of Zeus and other mythological figures, and more fascinated by the “Great Men” of science and history, who throng the bottom of the image. The panels are brightly colored and loosely painted. Compare this with the more muscular, more populist, and tech-savvy vision of Rivera — which may be just to say that artists’ approaches to modernity in these years were various and often contrasting.

The Spirit of Electricity, 1936/1937  Raoul Dufy, French, 1877-1953, Watercolor, gouache on paper mounted on canvas. Gift of Sara Lee Corporation. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Inevitably, perhaps, Picasso becomes at least one of the exhibit’s through lines, his position as the guy to beat implied by the title, his status as a successful giant of the art scene suggested in a photo by Man Ray in which he regards the viewer coolly from behind a respectable suit and cardigan. His decidedly non-cubist pencil drawing from 1920 of a nude bather sitting on a beach, the horizon balanced on her head, is one of the first works in the show; his late-1945 print Head of a Young Boy is one of the show’s final images. Picasso was one of the first to explore what lay beyond Cubism, and he’s shown here returning to classical sources for inspiration, as in his suite of illustrations for Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu— The Unknown Masterpiece, a short story by Balzac about an obsessed artist whose ten-year attempt to paint a portrait of his beloved results only in an undecipherable mess. Picasso’s most direct illustration of the story, showing the placid model knitting on the left, the artist absorbed in his work on the right, and the canvas in between choked by a tangle of arcs and lines, could pass for a wry New Yorker cartoon on the state of modern art. (Picasso related so strongly to the story that he moved his studio to the same Paris neighborhood in which Balzac’s fictional painter worked.) Picasso’s line work throughout the illustrations is in fact, clear and simple, evoking classical sculpture, except when he strategically applies intense hatching to emphasize a particular section of the image.

The complete set of Balzac illustrations is displayed in one of the gallery’s two octagonal side rooms. The other contains another set of illustrations, these by Louis Marcoussis, one of Cubism’s hold-outs, for a text by Gérard de Nerval, the Romantic writer whose dreamy work presaged the concerns of Surrealism. The Surrealists of course took the opposite tack from the return-to-order crowd, deciding after WW1 that irrationality and madness were more relevant to the current age than reason. The movement is represented here by the experimental photographs of Man Ray and others, as well as copies of the lavishly produced journals Minotaure and Verve; the final edition of the latter, the “war issue,” features a defiant Gallic rooster by Joan Miró, the last image to appear in the journal before it closed due to the encroachment of the Nazis.

Elsewhere in the exhibit is Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, a savage lampooning of the Spanish dictator whom Picasso depicts as some kind of anthropomorphic tumor, running roughshod through a series of grotesque misadventures. It’s one of his best known graphic works, but when you’re mounting a concise survey of thirty of the most storied years in art history, it’s not a bad idea to “play the hits” here and there. Matisse, for example, is well represented by his popular pochoir portfolio called Jazz, derived from the colorful paper cut-outs he created late in his life. Bedridden by illness while his country was being overrun by fascists, Matisse summoned happier memories of the circus and a trip to Tahiti to use as subject matter, but it was his publisher that gave the collection its musical title, to suggest the spirit of improvisation behind the work. The images are likely familiar to many art fans thanks to decades of posters and other inexpensive reproductions, but they definitely merit seeing in their original vibrant colors, and their lyrical compositions deserve a closer look.

Le Cirque, 1943  Henri Matisse, French, 1869-1954  Tériade, Greek, 1897 – 1983  Edmond Vairel, French Pochoir printed in color ink on wove paper. Gift of John S. Newberry. © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Other “greatest hits” on display here that will delight devotees of the between-the-wars art scene include Cartier-Bresson’s clever photo Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, of a man leaping gingerly over a reflective layer of water on the pavement and Brassaï’s portrait of Bijou, a fading, bejeweled Belle Epoch matron ensconced in some bar in Montmartre who seems to be incapable of finding a path into the future.

“Bijou” of Montmartre, ca. 1932  Brassaï, French, 1899-1984  Gelatin silver print. Founders Society Purchase, Charles L. Freer Fund, Elliott T. Slocum Fund and Hal H. Smith Fund. © ESTATE BRASSAÏ – RMN-Grand Palais.

The path forward for many of the artists in this exhibit included nerve-wracking waits for exit visas, cross-Atlantic escapes, struggles alongside Resistance forces, and interment in concentration camps (or, as with Le Corbusier, collaboration with fascists). While it’s not quite the final image in the exhibit (that’s Bing’s photo of the Eiffel Tower, still standing through everything), maybe Picasso’s doe-eyed child in Head of a Boy, printed only a few months after the end of the war, is a good note to go out on — a fresh-faced hope for a new start after the horrors of the Second World War, from an artist whose post-war work would be so preoccupied by the image of the dove.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris,  1918 – 1948, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2023

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Doug Cannell @ Stamelos Gallery Center

Doug Cannell: presents Learning Curves at the Stamelos Gallery Center, UofM Dearborn

Doug Cannell: Learning Curves, installation view.

The inspirations behind Doug Cannell’s sculptures are many and varied. They range from jazz music, the movement of water, urban decay, font design, calligraphy, and more. He’s also deeply inspired by the textures of Detroit’s places and spaces, where he was born and raised, and much of his work blurs the boundaries between the organic and the industrial.  “I buy my art supplies at scrapyards,” Doug Cannell writes, and “hardware stores and lumberyards.” Through December 10, the Stamelos Gallery Center (of the University of Michigan, Dearborn) presents Doug Cannell: Learning Curves, the artist’s most comprehensive exhibition to date.

Cannell mostly works with lumber and metal, exploring all the possibilities of the media, but always adhering to a truthful honesty to the material, never making metal or wood look like something it isn’t. Many of these works also draw on Cannell’s years of experience as a graphic designer, particularly the works which evoke different letters, alphabets, and typefaces. With some exceptions (like his series The Language of Bodies), the overwhelming majority of his works are abstract. All his work adheres to careful attention to craftmanship and design.

Learning Curves features multiple series of works created over the span of ten years, but gives prominence to two new bodies of work. The Enso and Beyond is sourced in the meditative Zen practice of creating an enso, a circle made with one continuous stroke of a calligraphy brush. Cannell transposes the enso into three dimensions, playing with its minimalist form in a series of circular wooden sculptures. Some of these are almost literal 3D interpretations of an enso, while others are more indirect, suggestive of calligraphic linework in a more general sense.  Speaking of these works, Cannell says, “I liked the idea that it’s not so much about the finished product, but it’s about the experience of making the artwork. It’s a meditative moment.”

Doug Cannell: Learning Curves, installation view.

The other new body of work on view is sourced in Cannell’s experience as a graphic designer, a field which gave him an immense appreciation for the capacity of various fonts and typefaces to enhance the meanings of words and to imbue words with nuance. In the series Letterforms, Cannell takes letters from various alphabets of the world, deconstructs them, and merges them together into sculptures that celebrate the language or the font on which they’re based. The forms are abstracted, but still recognizable, so viewers might recognize letters from the Thai alphabet, or Korean, Arabic, or Hebrew. It’s a series in wood which draws attention to the pure form of words without regard for their literal sounds or meanings.

Filling about half of the gallery space, these two recent bodies of work are displayed alongside selections of earlier works. One series is an expressive body of works which explores emotion and body language. The defensive postures the life-sized wooden figures assume are often suggestive of struggle. In using representational/figurative imagery, the series is an outlier in Cannell’s larger body of work, the rest of which is almost entirely abstract.

More typical (if its ok to say that about a body of work as relentlessly varied as this), are the abstract wooden sculptures of the series A Tree is a Wild Thing.  Each of the emphatically organic forms in this series was created using rectangular boards of industrial lumber, which Cannell then worked until the wood attained a beauty more suggestive of its original source in nature.

But Cannell’s work also explores the beauty and formal qualities of industrial materials, and the series Art and Invention is an exploration of the visual possibilities of steel and its decay. Often making use of repurposed, rusted steel, some of these wall-mounted sculptures seem like more polished and refined versions of the doggedly rugged industrial sculptures of Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin.

Arc Mentha, 2017 (28”x 8” x 4”), steel, aluminum, paint.

Thrump, 2016, (48’’x94’’x34’’), steel and wood

There seems to be a whimsicality and a playful quality to much of this work. It blurs boundaries between the organic and industrial…between craft and fine art. Regarding the inevitable categorization of his work into “series,” Cannell confesses that his goal is never to set out to create a series, and that a work in one set might just as easily fall into another. His work defiantly refuses simplistic categorization and easy labels, much like the places, spaces, and textures of Detroit itself.

Doug Cannell: Learning Curves, installation view.

Doug Cannell @ Stamelos Gallery Center, UofM Dearborn,  through December 10, 2023.

Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit @ Cranbrook Art Museum

An installation shot of Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit at the Cranbrook Art Museum, which will be up through March 3, 2024. (At left is Patrick Quarm’s Three Transitions.) Running through March 3, 2024 as well is LeRoy Foster: Solo Show. All images Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum.

Two new exhibitions at Cranbrook Art Museum showcase the considerable talents of Detroit’s African-American portrait painters, both past and present. Both LeRoy Foster: Solo Show, and Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit will be up through March 3, 2024.

Skilled Labor is the larger of the two, and a complete stunner. The very first canvas you’ll see on entering this 20-painter group show is Mario Moore’s huge, undeniably sexy Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan – with a 21st-century Black couple in bathing suits lying on the Windsor waterfront at night, the Detroit skyline, part of it in flames, across the river.

Mario Moore, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan, Oil on linen, 2022.

Chief curator Laura Mott organized this show with Moore,  a 2018 Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and she loves “how he conflates history and time into one canvas.” In this case Moore’s employed contemporary Detroiters to portray the Blackburns, a couple who fled Kentucky slavery in 1833, ultimately making their way to Canada via Detroit and the Underground Railroad.

A bit like Kehinde Wiley, who inserts young, tattooed and dreadlocked Black guys into historical paintings of war heroes on rearing horses (Wiley turned one of those into a sculpture that now sits on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia), Moore recontextualizes and illuminates history by dropping it into a modern framework.

Be sure not to miss Moore’s other large piece, A Student’s Dream, in which the artist himself, staring straight out at the viewer, lies naked on a dissection table surrounded by white doctors – a reference both to Moore’s own brain surgery, and the medical profession’s callous use of Black bodies in decades past for scientific research.

Also grappling with history, though in more sweeping, allegorical fashion, is Hubert Massey’s graphite-on-paper sketch for Forging the Future, a visual explosion of perspective and movement. The resulting fresco now commands the lobby of the new Huntington Tower on Woodward Avenue, just north of Grand Circus Park.

Hubert Massey, Sketch for Forging the Future, Graphite on paper, 2022.

You’re probably familiar with Massey’s work, whether you realize it or not. Among many other Detroit projects, Massey painted the mural on the exterior wall of the College for Creative Studies parking structure at Brush and Frederick streets, and designed the colorful mosaic on the soaring, modernist Bagley Street pedestrian bridge that vaults over the freeway trench dividing Mexicantown.

In pulling together Skilled Labor, Mott said Moore was particularly interested in what he calls “anti-portraits,” depictions that depart from the standard template of subject facing the world. This show has any number of intriguing examples, including several in which the individual in the painting has her or his back turned to the viewer. Consider, for example, Menorah’s Volta: A Light That Speaks by Cranbrook Academy of  Art alum Conrad Egyir, a gorgeous portrait of a Ghanaian woman looking away from us, across a vast African valley.

Anti-portraiture emerges in different fashion with Bakpak Durden’s How they recall his hands, an oddly moving portrait of an African-American man operating the wheel of some machine. The most notable feature is there’s no head above the meticulously rendered work shirt – suggesting, perhaps, that Black men were typically valued for their labor, but not for themselves. Durden, a self-taught multidisciplinary Detroit artist, was the subject of a solo show, The Eye of Horus, at Cranbrook in November, 2022.

Bakpak Durden, How they recall his hands, Oil on etch steel, pine, 2023.

A similar motif emerges in Cailyn Dawson’s three portraits on display, two of which clearly feature the artist herself, and one other, the 2021 “Untitled,” that stars a headless figure wearing a trench coat and white shirt. Said Mott, who first discovered Dawson in a show at Ferndale’s M Contemporary gallery, “When Cailyn talks about her work, she talks about learning about herself. She paints to investigate herself.” Assuming, then, that the untitled trench coat is the artist, one could possibly speculate that its meaning lies in a sort of obliteration or enforced invisibility.

Dawson’s other works are equally enigmatic. In “Seeing Double,” the artist regards herself in a mirror, arms and hands visible in the foreground as well as in the reflection. The point of view almost seems to locate us in her body, with the exact same perspective that she’d have on herself. It’s both a bit disorienting and cool. Finally, in Spotlight the artist, who’s currently getting her MFA at New York City’s Hunter College, shields her eyes with one hand from a blinding light that casts a sharp shadow on the white wall behind her. As unexpected compositions go, this almost rises to the level of anti-portrait. As Mott notes, if this were from a photo series, such a squinting image is the one you’d likely toss. That’s no criticism; the very unexpectedness of her pose is what makes Spotlight so hard to look away from.

Cailyn Dawson, Spotlight, Acrylic on canvas, 2021.

Once you’ve made your way through Skilled Labor, which occupies the first, large gallery as you walk through the museum, do turn left into LeRoy Foster: Solo Show. Moore and Mott initially intended to select painters for Skilled Labor from both the 20th and 21st centuries, but ultimately decided it made more sense to focus on works produced in the last 10 years.

Inevitably, that meant letting go of any number of superb portraitists who are no longer with us. The one exception they made was with LeRoy Foster, born in 1925, whom they decided deserved his first-ever solo show in a museum, one supported financially by the City of Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship.

Foster, who graduated from the school at the old Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (predecessor to CCS) and probably studied at Cranbrook, is a fascinating and surprising Detroit character – an unapologetically gay, Black artist in an era when that was perilous on any number of levels. In addition, the Detroiter, who lived in an abandoned theater on Livernois Avenue, was a portraitist in an era, particularly the 1950s and 60s, that mostly disdained any figurative art – much less the sort of lush, physicality Foster had such a gift for.

A reporter from National Public Radio, Mott says, wanted to know why an artist of Foster’s astonishing talents wasn’t better known. Mott laughs. “A Black, queer artist in mid-20th Century doing high-Renaissance style portraits? That was the era of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. And here’s Foster, hanging out being completely himself, doing paintings the art world at the time would likely have regarded as old-fashioned.”

Foster may be best known for his mural inside the Frederick Douglass branch of the Detroit Public Library – or the one on display in this show, Renaissance City, that hung for years in the old Cass Tech High School, even after the school was abandoned in favor of a new building next door. A group of Cass art teachers, including Senghor Reid (who’s in Skilled Labor) rescued the mural.

Some time after this exhibition closes in early March, Renaissance City will be installed in the new Cass Tech.

LeRoy Foster, Renaissance City, Oil on canvas, 1978/1986.

This exhibition features 20 contemporary artists who have worked in Detroit over the last decade. These artists include Christopher Batten, Taurus Burns, Cydney Camp, Ijania Cortez, Cailyn Dawson, Bakpak Durden, Conrad Egyir, Jonathan Harris, Sydney G. James, Gregory Johnson, Richard Lewis, Hubert Massey, Mario Moore, Sabrina Nelson, Patrick Quarm, Joshua Rainer, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Senghor Reid, Rashaun Rucker, and Tylonn J. Sawyer.

Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit and LeRoy Foster: Solo Show will both be at the Cranbrook Art Museum through March 3, 2024.


Ruth E. Carter @ The Wright

Ruth E. Carter Costume Design at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan.

“Roots” (2016) Miniseries directed by Bruce Beresford, Thomas Carter, Phillip Noyce, and Mario Van Peebles, installation with costumes by Ruth E. Carter for Nancy (Anna Paquin) and Charlotte (Joy Jacobson). All Photos:  K.A. Letts

When we go to the movies, we are often only dimly conscious that each film is a complex work of collaboration, with thousands of anonymous artists and craftsmen working together to realize the vision of a singular director at the top of the credits. But Ruth E. Carter, the creative mind and eye behind the costumes in over 70 films by a who’s who of talented filmmakers, stands out as a uniquely talented contributor to this most collaborative art form.   The current retrospective of her work, with costumes and props from her 40-year career, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” is now on view at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History until March 31, 2024.  It’s well worth a visit and the (rather steep) price of admission to appreciate, in person, these exquisitely realized artifacts of Carter’s long career.

Carter has been the go-to designer for a distinguished collection of directors—Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, among others—who depend upon her meticulous research and masterful craftsmanship to give visual heft and historical authenticity to the stories they tell.  The exhibition takes us on a tour of the artist’s work from her comic designs for the 1988 send-up of blaxploitation films “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” to the historical authenticity of the 2016 re-make of “Roots” to her most recent Afrofuturist costume inventions for “Black Panther” (2018) and “Wakanda Forever” (2022.) A two-time Oscar winner, Carter doesn’t merely dress her actors—she illuminates the characters and the story through her attention to detail and careful research, a process she describes as “reading about a time period, speaking to historians, studying the way the mind thought and body moved, and learning about innovative or ancient design techniques that can enhance the costume.”

“Malcolm X,” (1992) Directed by Spike Lee, installation with zoot suits for Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) and Shorty ((Spike Lee) designed by Ruth E. Carter.

The costumes in this exhibition often tell stories based on important events in Black American history such as “Malcolm X,” “Selma,” and  “Amistad.”  But her work on more fictional plots like “Coming 2 America,” “Dolemite is my Name” and even the Black Panther movies, deliver an equal sense of authenticity thanks to her extensive research into American fashion history and ethnographic studies from African sources.

Particularly impressive are some of the modern costumes designed by Carter for “Malcolm X.” The 2 zoot suits on display, with their exaggerated silhouettes and outrageous color palettes,  though extreme even on their own terms, are remarkably well-realized and convincing. The trajectory of Malcolm X’s life can be traced through Carter’s costumes, from his early origins as a young hipster through his subsequent ideological embrace of the National of Islam and culminating in his post-hajj conversion to Sunni Islam and civil rights activism.

“Selma” (2014) Directed by Ava DuVernay, installation with Sunday dresses designed by Ruth E. Carter for the young girls: Addie Mae Collins (Mikeria Howard,) Denise McNair (Trinity Simone,) Carol Rosamond Robertson ( Ebony Billups,) Cynthia Dionne Wesley (Nadej K. Bailey,) and Sarah Collins Rudolph (Jordan Rice.)

Another particularly poignant collection of delicate Sunday School dresses for the little girls in “Selma” shows Carter at her most subtly expressive. Each dress is finely detailed, from the voile and taffeta fabrics to the eyelet under-petticoats to the ribbon sashes. The  violent fate of the five is subtly foreshadowed and rendered more horrific by the butterfly-like fragility and beauty of these pastel confections.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2020) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) Carter’s design for the queen’s crown was based on the traditional South African woman’s marriage hat. Fabric designs were developed in cooperation with Austrian designer Julie Koerner.

Carter’s most recent costumes for “Black Panther” (2018) and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022) are the headliners in this exhibition, and deservedly so. Her already prominent reputation as a costume designer has been raised exponentially by the two high profile and highly profitable films.   (“Black Panther” grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide and broke numerous box office records, becoming the highest-grossing film directed by a Black filmmaker and the second highest grossing film of 2018.)

The Marvel Studio-derived adventures of king T’Challa and his royal clan, set in the mythical African nation of Wakanda, nevertheless take on a convincing reality based on Carter’s imaginative world-building. The films are a recent iteration of the cultural esthetic known as Afrofuturism, a term first coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993. What began as a more-or-less literary trend centered on science fiction has since made inroads into other genres such as fantasy and magic realism.  Historians point to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 science fiction novel “Invisible Man” as a precursor, and Octavia Butler’s novels are often associated with the genre.  Carter defines the movement for herself  as “using technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous people to believe and create without the limiting construct of slavery and colonialism.” She has ably combined her characteristic attention to historical and ethnic costume history with an inventive admixture of computer-generated and 3d-printed detail that makes the complex story believable on a visceral level.

“Black Panther” (2018) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Ayo Dora Milaje (Florence Kasumba) Carter’s costume designs for the Wakandan warrior clan, the Dora Milaje, were based on traditional dress of the Ndebele women of South Africa.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2020) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Namor, King of Talokan (Tenoch Huerta.) Carter’s designs for the inhabitants of the underwater kingdom were based upon Mexican and Mayan influences.

Carter has earned wide attention for her Black Panther costumes referencing Afrofuturism, but she is far from the only creative to contribute to the ongoing cultural conversation in the visual arts, music, and literature.   In 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room.” The exhibition, organized in a “period room” installation format, envisioned the past, present, and future home of someone who lived in Seneca Village, a largely African-American settlement destroyed in the mid-1800’s to make room for Central Park. In 2022, the Hayward Gallery in London curated an exhibition of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction and myth to speculate on the world’s future.

Visual artists working in the fine arts on a smaller scale, like Nick Cave, Rashad Newsome, Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Yinka Shonibare and Ellen Gallagher, can be counted among those influenced by the Afrofuturist esthetic. But Carter, as a high-profile creative in a mass-market art form that reaches millions, may be one of the most prominent visualizers of the genre working now.  “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” provides an excellent opportunity for anyone who wants to feel the texture and sense the power of Afrofuturism to head down to the Wright Museum for a visit this fall and winter.

“Do the Right Thing” (1989) Directed by Spike Lee. Mookie (Spike Lee) Carter’s designs for the film are neon-bright and based on the red, yellow and green of the pan-African flag. Photo: K.A. Letts

Ruth E. Carter: Aftrofuturism in Costume Design   October 10 – March 31, 2024  

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