AGO show humanizes the enslaved, Yorkville store tramples on tragedy: Paradkar

Nice piece contrasting awareness and obliviousness:

Two-and-a-half kilometres. That’s the distance between the gallery in Toronto where artworks utilize fashion to tell the stories of the oppressed and the alley where a store turns to fashion to trample on their tragedies.

One is a series called WANTED at the Art Gallery of Ontario where two Toronto artists have used fashion photography to cast light on the hushed-up history of slavery in Canada. The other is a camouflage jacket, on sale at a men’s store named Uncle Otis in Yorkville, that was worn by Belgian soldiers in the aftermath of an especially brutal and bloody colonization of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo during which they killed more than 10 million people.

From the WANTED series, you’ll see on a billboard splashed up at Yonge-Dundas Square, an image of Tracy Moore, the host of Cityline.

In the photo, though, she is unnamed. She is wearing red, carrying weights. “Black gown and red callimanco petticoat” say the words on the image, describing her clothing. Next to the photo, another board that says “Not for sale.”

The inspiration for that “ad” and about nine others displayed at the AGO came from advertisements in newspapers such as Upper Canada Gazette and Quebec Gazette in the 1700s posted by Canadian slave owners after the people they had enslaved had run away. In the ads were descriptions of what the enslaved people were last seen wearing.

That detail motivated artists Camille Turner and Camal Pirbhai to transform those fugitive slave ads into artworks that look like contemporary fashion ads.

“Black gown and red callimanco petticoat” was the description that appeared in a newspaper ad in August 1766. “Whoever apprehends said Negro Girl, and brings her back to said WERDEN, or to Mrs. Mary Wiggans, at Montreal, shall have ONE PISTOLE Reward, and all necessary Charges, paid by I. WERDEN,” it read.

“We are not honouring slaves,” Turner told me by email.” We are honouring people who thought of themselves as free and took action to liberate themselves.”

“We wanted to restore their humanity. We don’t have access to the words of enslaved people but through these ads we know their actions. They took matters into their own hands, stealthily running away despite the risks and consequences of recapture.”

“None of my Canadian schooling had taught me about this reality (of slavery in Canada),” Pirbhai said.

“I immediately related this to the obliviousness we seem to show towards the current day slave trade existing in the fashion industry. Fashion ads were the perfect conduit to parallel the injustices of the past and the issues of today.”

Issues of today at a micro level include instances like at Uncle Otis that sells the camouflage jacket under the U.K. based label Maharishi.

This M65 Belgian Congo smock jacket is on sale at a Yorkville boutique.
This M65 Belgian Congo smock jacket is on sale at a Yorkville boutique.

One problem is the appropriation of the word Maharishi for a line of surplus military clothing. In Sanskrit, maha means great, rishi means sage. What a great sage has to do with military jackets beats me.

“The camouflage pattern, especially in the context of defence-budget-subsidised clothing, offers itself as a perfect canvas for customised, anti-military statements of peace and freedom,” says the Maharishi website.

This leaves me none the wiser.

Still, fashion is ripe with appropriation of “exotic” words from other languages — and in this case is likely used to add an aura of mysticism.

What about the choice of jacket? How is it any different from Nazi-era military gear?

Nobody responded to my repeated email requests for comment on the choice of label and the jacket from Maharishi and Uncle Otis; a manager at the store refused comment when I went there. I tried for two weeks. That was ample time to respond or quietly take down an offensive jacket after they were informed what it stood for.

The jacket itself selling for a hefty $590 (slashed, almost half price! from the original $950) is described thus: “This beautiful pick is of the M65 Belgian Smock Jacket used in the Congo. Maharishi reclaims it with handpainted tigerstripe came, repaired wear-and-tear holes and replaced missing buttons.”

Belgian Congo was rich in rubber, ivory, gold and other minerals, and Belgium extracted billions of dollars of wealth on the backs of local labour, committing atrocities and a genocide that decimated half the population of the land.

A more apt description of what this jacket symbolizes, then, would be: “It has the smell of the blood of the Congolese still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little smock jacket, neither will attempts to cover it with tiger stripes or repair the wear-and-tear brought about by kidnapping, beating, starving, mutilating, torturing, and murdering Congolese people for Europe’s economic gain. Wear it — to our economic gain.”

This isn’t art, this isn’t fashion. This is continuing to profit from exploitation.

Art has purpose.

“For us, art is about provoking critical thinking and prompting conversations,” said Turner. “We feel it is our responsibility to speak to future generations about our history.”

Over to you, Maharishi.

Source: AGO show humanizes the enslaved, Yorkville store tramples on tragedy: Paradkar | Toronto Star

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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