An Archive That Speaks in the Fashionable Self The Black Image Corporation

Edith in den Fashion-Städten is a series of travel notes and reviews on exhibitions and events, written by a confused traveler trying to make sense of these hazy everyday encounters and the politics of the body accompanying them. The first installment in the series recounted a trip to the archive of Ulm’s School of Design, while the second journey brought our writer to the Helmut Lang archive in Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts and Elfie Semotan’s show Contradiction at C/O Berlin. Lázár’s third encounter recalls questions around fashion imageries and archives, and how they »shape and reshape collective visual memories, for they operate with representations of class, gender, race and the body.« This she observes closely while visiting the exhibition The Black Image Corporation by Theaster Gates at the Gropius-Bau Berlin this spring.

I walk the streets of Berlin possessing a confidence I’ve greeted no other city with. Not because the city is an ongoing artistic Mecca and the place that has heavily showcased some of »the best artists to watch« at the current Venice Biennale. Or because I’m just part of the wolf pack around its art scene, sharpening my words with a pinch of envy. It’s the city itself that seems inviting to me, so easy to figure out that I forget to perform what I know best: failing directions – The Confused Traveler. Berlin, at least, doesn’t get to call me by this name. While I rush through art galleries and independent spaces, design shops and the blanket of creatives hoovering the streets, museums in the summer are my safety net. And so, I walk the line – the line once dividing an East and a West, with the feeling of my origin in a former communist country still lingering, just to cross another threshold: from the historical dressed façade to the contemporary art insights of Gropius-Bau museum.

What was once a home for decorative arts has over time become a background for artistic output as well as interferences of social practices. The exhibition The Black Image Corporation by Theaster Gates (April 25–July 28, 2019) on the museum’s first floor opens itself as a participatory display accounting for some of the Johnson Publishing Company’s image collection. Through Ebony and Jet magazines, the publishers laid ground for representations of American Black culture, mapping both historical or socially heavy topics as the 1963 Washington March (known as the civil movement for jobs), as well as everyday life and celebrities’ culture. Gates, a renowned artist who blends performance and social practices, conceived the exhibition as a sort of momentum that sets particularly female beauty and self-fashioning at the center. Large-format photographs shot by in-house photographers Moneta Sleet, Jr. and Isaac Sutton structured the space confronting the audience with piercing gazes and outstanding postures.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Gates chose them. These portraits hold a vibrance that contaminates the entire space. On a lightbox desk, one could browse through the contact sheets of photo shoots while in the other room two specially designed cabinets invite the audience to literally exchange the fashion plates on their display. Hands in gloves, one feels seduced by these acts of discovering and replacing, where the wooden plates with fashion images seemed to transfer a material feeling to the connections they enabled. Almost like a dance, the constant permutations performed by the public created fluid correlations between artifacts, as if by means of fascination extending us one to another in terms of taste and touch.

Glamour, elegant garments and fabrics, and the visual compositions attest to an alignment competing in sophistication with the likes of Irvin Penn and the Vogue fashion spreads. Seeing the confident posture of actress Eartha Kitt on one of the covers of Ebony, I couldn’t help but recall an interview of hers: »Compromise? What compromise? Why compromise? Never,« she says, laughing wildly in the face of a journalist daring to ask her if a woman should make compromises in relationships. It ringed to me as emancipation and autonomy in love, life, and finance, women educating and influencing each other. Stacked under a glass sheet, the magazines only hinted at the stories they’ve recorded, even if allowing for a »matter of facts« across political status, civil movements, everyday life conditions, a strong hold on education and health care.

»How we organize images and information can thus challenge collective memory and be powerful agents in the process of decolonizing fashion and identities.«

Yet, there it was, the feeling that Black culture somehow gets relegated mainly to the American one, regardless of its other counterparts. French philosopher Jacques Derrida once underlined the archive’s root in the Greek arkhe, meaning both commencement (the origin – historical or physical) and commandment (from where social order is exercised). If archives can relegate order, then nurturing relational realities, addressing cultural amnesia or ways of recording, become significant points. Yet the Black Image Corporation archive is presented as a self-contained space. While your writer – the owner of a very white skin – does not wish to delve into the (Pandora’s box) question of »what black?,« fashioning black bodies through what we still keep calling »western« fashion however, remains central in the process of decolonizing imageries. In an interview for 032c magazine, Gates points out the core issue: »They were wearing Italian clothes, Swiss shoes, and German wigs, but when a black body puts on an Italian dress, it looks like a black dress.« [1] In other words, how the world designs you has everything to do with ways of looking at you. Skin is the first to assert your difference, the problem being not the difference itself, but what cultural meaning it gets. [2]

Interesting to note is La Revue du Monde Noir: The Review of the Black World, a bilingual magazine founded back in the 1930s by the Nadal sisters, which engaged directly with the question of dress in the sense of »the European fashion as followed by people of color.« The Question Corner in particular was a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward Henri Bergson and his book on laughter, in which the philosopher asked in a racist slur: »Why does the sight of a [black] dressed in European fashion provoke the laugh of the white man?« answering himself by: »Because the white man thinks the [black] is disguised.« [3] In the review however, reversing the masquerade to an understanding of clothing as style, the »natural answer« becomes: »Just like everybody else, according to the climate and the social life!« What arises is this »preposterous way« of being looked at, namely, following theorist W.E.B Du Bois, a sort of »two-ness«: of looking at oneself through the eyes of others and how the world is looking down on you; between the images of communities and the racist images that got perpetuated, in other words »the veil of Race.« [4]

Fashion imageries in this sense shape and reshape collective visual memories, for they operate with representations of class, gender, race, and the body. How we organize images and information can thus challenge collective memory and be powerful agents in the process of decolonizing fashion and identities. While new digital platforms are highly engaged in this direction, archival photographs – like the ones Gates saved and put together – debrief the eye and can call upon the past, enabling something that bell hooks named as other ways of knotting bonds and »re-affirming life.« Here, photography, as the medium of social visibility, becomes central. [5] If archives can reaffirm the life that was always there (by confronting the normative imagery with those inside communities), tending to intersectional relations, extending them to other black communities as well, can give a more nuanced perspective of the many societal layers of »what is black.«

Stepping out in the hot concrete realm of Berlin, I suddenly recalled a conversation I had last year with a friend from Nigeria I met in a writing workshop. It was an equally hot day and we were having coffee and talking about Afrofuturism, when he calmly curbed my enthusiasm pointing that many of these framings of African roots, like Pan-Africanism or even Afropolitanism, have a whiff of elitism to them, and this was maybe just the most recent. But, he ended – quoting our common sweetheart, philosopher Roland Barthes – the word is always open.




  1. Jump Up Theaster Gates in an interview with Victoria Camblin, »Life Exists: Theaster Gates’ Black Image Corporation, November 19, 2018,«
  2. Jump Up Lesley Lokko, »In the Skin of a Lion, a Leopard … a Man, in Superhumanity: Design of the Self,« eds. Nick Axel, Beatriz Colomina, et. al., University of Minnesota Press and e-flux, 2018, p. 128.
  3. Jump Up Henri Bergson, Laughter, 1911, quoted by Elke Gaugele and Monica Titton in the introduction of the edited volume Fashion and Postcolonial Critique, Sternberg Press, 2019, p. 16. While the actual quote uses a denigrating racist slur, I refuse to reproduce it with the risk of the quote being inaccurate.
  4. Jump Up For a perspective on both the problematics La Revue du Monde Noir addressed, and W.E.B Du Bois’concept of two-ness, see Elke Gaugele and Monica Titton’s Introduction to Fashion and Postcolonial Critique, pp. 15–18
  5. Jump Up bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, New Press, 1995.