Paige Michel-Strachan, BA History student and ‘Excel’ Intern reviews the Resist: be modern (again) exhibition at John Hansard Gallery. Here Paige lists her favourite artworks and explains why she likes them so much.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
This has to be my favourite photograph in Resist: be modern (again) exhibition! It is a photograph of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. It is very eye-catching because it is the first large picture you see when walking up the stairs to the Mezzanine. Elsa’s facial expression and the position of her body is very interesting. It raises all kinds of questions, like was she impersonating someone? Was she dancing listening to music? Who was the audience watching her at the time? She sure doesn’t seem camera shy. It highlights the fact that she worked as an actress and vaudeville performer. Elsa was known for her controversial, sexually charged street theatre. She seems like a light-hearted, comical, entertaining person who isn’t afraid to make herself look a little silly. I attempted to copy this pose and facial expression because this photo makes you want to join in and have some fun too. Every time I walk past this photograph, it brings a smile to my face and I have a little giggle. Her vaudeville outfit looks like Native American tribal wear, with a Caribbean carnival head-dress, mixed with 1920s cabaret fashion. She constructed her elaborate costumes from found objects, so it would be no surprise if she put this outfit together. Even though this photo is in black and white, it illuminates so much vibrancy, with her body movement, bold clothes and facial expression. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven created amazing artwork in her time, and it is fair to say she is a piece of art herself.
I love this monochrome portrait of A’Lelia Walker. She looks so beautiful! She was an African-American businesswoman and patron of the arts. She was the daughter of Madam C.J Walker, popularly credited as being the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States and one of the first African American millionaires. After attending Knoxville College, A’Leila joined her family’s hair care business specifically catering to Afro hair. This photograph of A’Leila Walker is significant because she and her mother are representatives of self-made wealth which were unpopular for women at the time, especially African American women. We need to remember that A’Leila’s mother was born on a cotton plantation and was the first in her family to be free-born. Her mother was also orphaned at a young age. Despite all the hardships, both A’Leila and her mother were successful business women. Like Ada ‘Bricktop’, A’Leilia played a crucial role in the Harlem Renaissance. A’Leila was a hostess of some of the era’s most notable social gatherings where talented artists, European and African royalty socialised. A’Leila held Hudson River parties which provided a safe, welcoming space for queer black artists at a time when they were often pushed into the shadows.
In this picture, we can see that A’Leila’s fashion style was typical for affluent women during the Harlem Renaissance. She is expressing elegance and grace with the popular “bob” haircut, below knee length drop waist dress with a loose, straight fit, her pearls and cocoon fur coat. It was typical for women to also wear hats – but, Leila is not wearing one in this picture. Perhaps she was hosting an event on the day she took this photograph because women hosting events were not allowed to wear hats. I do not know the reasoning behind this fashion rule but I am assuming it sets the hostess apart from the other female guests. A’Leila was also a musician who loved classical and opera music. Like her mother, A’Leila was very generous in helping communities – providing philanthropic and educational conventions. She even adopted a little girl called Mae Walker. A’Leila is a lovely role model to other women, especially black women.
Katie Schwab: Quilt 1
This masterpiece is by Katie Schwab. It is incredibly stimulating with all the bright, bold colours and shapes jumping out at you. It is a form of patchwork similar to traditional Korean patchwork named pojagi or Jogakbo. This style of patchwork involves bringing together smaller pieces of fabric in a larger design. Pogaji represents respect for the object and good will toward the recipient. The earliest examples of patchwork have been located in Egyptian tombs and also in early age China about 5,000 years ago.
This particular artwork looks like a rug or quilt, made using stitchery. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing but it could also be utilitarian too. I like this artwork because it has several colours composing an irregular modern abstract pattern. This artwork is open to interpretation. At first, I saw a colourful shanti town, then I saw a big smiley face, then I saw a lady with her hair in a bun, with her hands on her hips, sitting down, checking her phone – random, I know. It is a fun, vivacious piece of art that radiates happiness. You can’t miss it in the exhibition, it’s one you won’t forget.
Katie Schwab mentioned that she used a selection of books to inform her ideas of domestic design, craft and pattern construction. I plan on creating some patchwork art influenced by Katie’s piece.
Ada “Bricktop” Smith
The works of Ada “Bricktop” Smith are remarkable. She is one of the most legendary figures of the twentieth century in American cultural history. She was a vaudevillian and self-described saloon-keeper who owned the nightclub Chez Bricktop in Paris from 1924 to 1961. In Resist: be modern (again), there are three of “Bricktop’s” diaries with people’s names and addresses inside. I am not entirely sure who the people in the diary are, but I am assuming they are important visitors to her club. There is a lovely grayscale portrait of “Bricktop” taken by Carl Van Vechten. She is wearing a cloche hat – the most iconic hat during the 1920s, meaning “bell” because it was shaped with a round crown and a small brim, with a bow, flower or art decoration shape on one side.
The cartoon style poster of “Bricktop” is very cool. It is similar to the digital illustrations I draw. Ada acquired her nickname, “Bricktop” for the flaming red hair and freckles she inherited from her Irish father. The cartoon illustration does a great job at highlighting these features, in a way the grayscale photograph cannot. Also, the ‘queen of the night’ was known for her signature cigars – the cartoon poster also emphasises this. There are another two posters announcing “Bricktop’s” clubs opening in Rome, Paris and Mexico. I watched the BBC Archive video of “Bricktop”. She was 84 years old here and talking about her career running clubs. She mentioned that she sang jazz music and taught the Charleston dance. However, she said she does not really identify as a performer, she identifies as a businesswoman. The diaries, photograph, posters and video give us an insight into “Bricktop’s” jazzy life.
Tanoa Sasraku-Ansah: Spectacles in Black (Bessie Smith via Van Vechten)
Tanoa Sasraku-Ansah likes to highlight the work of Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Tanoa is a creative queer mixed-race woman like Bricktop. Her artwork makes me curious. It looks like a dark, fantasy, tribal mask art form. This can be considered as abstract art. This is because she uses shapes and shading to achieve its effect. I am not entirely sure what this piece is or the story behind it – and that is the beauty of this art. Could it be African vector tribal masks, is it a couple dancing the night away or is it people burning in a fire? I honestly have no idea – and that is why I like it so much. This piece of artwork is very big, so it catches your attention as you walk past. The most fascinating part of this artwork is the big cut out hole on the right-hand side, in the shape of a face (I think). I have never seen a piece of artwork like this before, showing how original and unique it is. This face-in-hole piece is great for engagement. It encourages audiences, especially children, to get involved with the artwork and take pictures with their face in the hole.
This piece is made with several sheets of paper stacked up on top of each other. If you look closely, you can see the intricate embroidery on it too. It would be interesting to know her thought process behind this piece of art and her creative inspirations. Her mission, through her art practice, is to be able to connect with black and minority ethnicity (BME) groups and BME lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) young people and to show them that you can create something really powerful and potent in rural areas. I am a young aspiring artist from a BME background, so Tanoa is definitely a great example to follow. She is the youngest artist in the Resist: be modern (again) exhibition, being in her early 20s. She has achieved so much, at such a young age – #TanoaIsGoals.
There are some wonderful pieces I haven’t mentioned, like the Resist: be modern (again) transatlantic crossings that show the connections between the historical figures and contemporary artists. This piece is significant in showing female empowerment. This spider web highlights pioneering women who were important groundbreakers for their time, fighting battles against social conventions and aesthetic dogmas. They paved the way for today’s female contemporary artists. I like Florine Stettheimer’s beach painting too. It is vibrant with its multicultural aspect, colourful seaside and busy vibe. She usually created paintings depicting controversial issues of gender, race and sexual preference. I also appreciate the artwork created collaboratively. Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher’s original printing wooden blocks and sample fabrics from the 1920s and 1930s were lovely to see at the exhibition. Phyllis and Dorothy decorated their home with their own fabrics and wore printed dresses of their own design. How cool is that!
Overall, the Resist: be modern (again) exhibition is amazing. Shout out to Alice Maude-Roxby and Stephanie Seibold – the curators of the exhibition. Have a look around, and let me know what your favourite pieces of art are. Discover and explore the art at the Resist: be modern (again) exhibition.
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