The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity
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The creative traditions of dress and body arts among people of African descent in the United States reveal continuities of ideas, values, skills, and knowledge rooted in the African continent and in the American experience. They have been shaped by identities born of African heritage; legacies of bondage and resistance; and encounters and alliances between people of African descent, indigenous Americans, Europeans, and more recent African and Caribbean diasporas. They may reflect, for example, shared experiences of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; group commitments to faith; and the politics of gender.
African Americans "belong" to many communities variously defined by ethnic, class, gender and gender orientation, regional, religious, political, cultural, and other affiliations that exist in complex interrelationship with each other. Accordingly, there is no single African American aesthetic of dress; there are many aesthetics that at times overlap, intertwine, and are juxtaposed in visual dialogues defining difference and belonging.
Style, the art of dress and personal adornment, is a powerful way to assert complex identities, announce solidarity with a cause, proclaim music and dance preferences, uphold cultural pride, and declare belief in a set of religious and moral principles. In all its glorious diversity, African American style is as local as the barbershop on the corner and as global as the influence of hip hop dress culture among young people from Japan to South Africa. The 2013 Festival celebrated the communities, artisans, and exemplars of style who contribute to this distinctive, expressive art form and their creative approaches, processes, and performances.
The Will to Adorn Festival program was part of a multi-year collaborative cultural research and community engagement project initiated by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The project brought together faculty and students at historically (and predominantly) African American colleges and universities, museum and independent scholars, community and student researchers, educators, and cultural practitioners to document and present the wearable art traditions of African Americans from diverse regional, ethnic, occupational, faith, and ideology-based communities. This research focused on urban style centers - Atlanta, metropolitan Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and most recently Oakland, California. The project identified and represented a range of traditions of dress and body arts of Americans of African descent across the United States. At the 2013 Festival, this work was highlighted at the Research Tent, where, as part of the Smithsonian's Will to Adorn Youth Access project, teen researchers worked with visitors to create their own sartorial (dress) autobiographies.
Diana Baird N'Diaye was Program Curator, with a Curatorial Team including Olivia Cadaval, Elaine Nichols, and Debora Mack; Sally A. Van de Water was Program Coordinator. Advisors included: Harold Anderson, Mary Jo Arnoldi, Jade D. Banks, Rachel Delgado-Simmons, Tina Dunkley, James Early, Jessica Harris, Monte Oyd Harris, Christine Kreamer, Marsha MacDowell, Maurita Poole, Mark Puryear, Deborah Richardson, Gwendolyn K. Robinson, Pamela Rogers, Nicole Shivers, Pravina Shukla, Deborah Smith-Pollard, Gabrielle Tayac, Patricia Turner, Mary Arnold Twining Baird, and Deborah Willis.
The program was produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and supported by Smithsonian Institution funds from the Youth Access Grants Program, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and other Smithsonian fund sources. It was also supported by AARP. Major in-kind support came from the Smithsonian Office of Mobile Technology, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art, the Center for Aesthetic Modernism, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Bowie State University, Frank McClarin High School, University of the District of Columbia, University of Michigan, University of California-Los Angeles, Michigan State University, Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, and Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center. Research for the program was funded by the Craft Research Fund, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Smithsonian Scholarly Studies, Smithsonian Institution Consortium for Understanding the American Experience and Consortium for World Cultures, and the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts.
Maurita Poole and Spelman College students, Deborah Robinson and McClarin High School Video Production Program, Atlanta researchers; Althea Grey McKenzie, Baltimore researcher; Gwendolyn Robinson, Chicago researcher; Simone Forde, Deborah Smith Pollard, Detroit researchers; Diana Briggs, Malik Stevenson, New Orleans researchers; Jade D. Banks, Madaha Kinsey Lamb, and students of the Beverly Robinson Folk Arts Internship Program, Mind-Builders Creative Arts, New York City researchers; Shukuru Sanders, Oakland researcher; Harold Anderson and students at Bowie State University and Goucher College, Camila Bryce-LaPorte and students, Katherine Hockey, Mark Puryear, James Robinson, Washington, D.C., researchers; Sally A. Van de Water, Januwa Moja, Jade D. Banks, Betty Mahoney, U.S. Virgin Islands researchers; Camila Bryce LaPorte, Olivia Smith-Elnaggar, Deborah Smith Pollard, communities of faith researchers; Rachel Delgado-Simmons, Gabrielle Tayac, Native/African American communities researchers; Keisha Martin, on-line communities of style researcher
Kimberly Brown, Camila Bryce-LaPorte, James Early, Allison J. Hamilton, Elaine Nichols, Mark Puryear, Gwendolyn Robinson, Olivia Smith-Elnaggar, Gabrielle Tayac, Patricia Turner, Derrick Washington
Rosemary Reed Miller, historian and entrepreneur, Washington, D.C.
Lubna Muhammad, 1955-, fashion designer, Pennsauken, New Jersey
Betty Keckley Stratford, family historian, Washington, D.C.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, style exemplars, Takoma Park, Maryland
Jade Banks, director, Dr. Beverly J. Robinson Community Folk Culture Program, Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, New York, New York
Monte Oyd Harris, 1966-, Maryland, plastic surgeon, Chevy Chase, Maryland
Yemaya Jones, 1949-, resist dyer, Frederiksted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
James Pogue, 1993-, Frank McClarin High School student researcher, Atlanta Georgia
Darius Smith, 1993-, Frank McClarin High School student researcher, Atlanta Georgia
Geena Paige Mignon, genealogist, African ancestry
Edmund Asante, 1993-, Mind-Builders student researcher, Bronx, New York
Katherine Blanco, 1995-, Mind-Builders student researcher, Bronx, New York
Marlon Carter, Mind-Builders student researcher
Chennell Christopher, 1984-, Mind-Builders student researcher, Bronx, New York
Phylicia Martin, Mind-Builders student researcher
Debra Robinson, 1953-, videographer, educator, Frank McClarin High School, Atlanta, Georgia
Andrene M. Taylor, 1978-, health activist, CEO of Zuriworks for Women's Health, Washington, D.C.
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Smithsonian Folklife Festival records: 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.