Carving Beauty

Artists Speak: Adornment Exhibition

Videographer Drew Brown captures the opening of the Adornment exhibition at the Millstone Gallery on September 20, 2019.

Artist and Curator in Residence, Yvonne Osei, sheds light on the inspiration for conceiving Adornment, a multimedia exhibition on view at the Millstone Gallery till January 12, 2020.  Osei also interviews three featured artists to offer deeper insights about their artworks in the exhibition. These responses from Seth Aryee, Yowshien Kuo and Yolanda Newson highlight how art can celebrate culture, dissect American history and address racial discrimination through the things we put on or take off our bodies to enhance our appearance.

Every society has cultivated and promoted ideals that define and qualify beauty through clothing, textiles, haircuts, jewelry, body paintings and tattoos. Adornment explores how people choose to define themselves individually or collectively, as well as how they accept or challenge what society ascribes as possessing value. The exhibition also investigates how beautifying oneself can foster associations and disassociations through symbols of luxury, group affiliations, celebration and festivities, as well as conformance and defiance of authority.

However, Osei mentions that Adornment is not only about the tangible object that decorates. Adornment also describes the entire action of adorning something or someone—a process that explores not only the art (adorned), but also the creative process (adorning) and the artist (adorner).

Yvonne Osei

Yvonne is a German-born Ghanaian conceptual artist, curator and art educator with a transnational creative practice. Her work explores the topics of beauty and colorism, the politics of clothing, and how global trade and colonialism impact post-colonial West African & Western cultures. Osei received her M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. She is the recipient of the 2018 Saint Louis Visionary Award for Emerging Artist, 2018 Creative Stimulus Award, 2019 Future Fund Award in St. Louis and is represented by the Bruno David Gallery. Osei is the inaugural Curator in Residence at the Center of Creative Arts.

In her effort to illustrate this action of adorning, Yvonne Osei conceptualizes a performance titled “The Gallery as Barbershop”.

“The Gallery as Barbershop” performance by artist Yvonne Osei in collaboration with Total Image Barbershop run by couple Christopher Williams (right) and Terri Williams (left) in progress at the opening of “Adornment” in Millstone Gallery on September 20, 2019

At the opening of “Adornment”, Osei collaborated with Total Image Barbershop in University City to set up shop in the gallery space. “The Gallery as Barbershop” involved a fully stocked barbershop run by a couple, Christopher and Terri Williams.

Osei recalls, “I spent 3 months going around barbershops around the St. Louis region, seeking the right collaboration for this performance. I would sometimes walk into the space and sit to observe and get a sense of the culture that existed there. Terri was a friend, but I had no clue that she and her husband run a barbershop. I thought it was the coolest thing! What sold me was when I realized that their two gifted daughters were performing in COCA’s Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, a play that showed in October 2019 as the exhibition was on view. It was a true COCA- community moment!”

Throughout the opening, both barbershop seats were never empty with a loose queue of interested participants and a spectacle around the hair-cutting activity. Osei states, “Barbershops in African and African American communities are cultural hubs. Grooming in these spaces happen on a physical and socio-cultural level. My intention for the performance was to claim a predominately white space for the elevation of black culture and the black aesthetic.” She explained that “The Gallery as Barbershop” showed the action of adorning where viewers observe the barbers at work. The adorner (barbers), adorning (barbering) and adorned (clients) were all made present before the viewers eyes.

EXTENSIONS, a video piece by Yvonne Osei that shows a Ghanaian woman braiding her hair is also featured in Adornment. This video highlights the craftsmanship and the culture of braiding one’s hair: the conversations that take place in this space, the teamwork, the delicate balancing of the sitter’s head, and a sense of sisterhood. In EXTENSIONS, the sitter getting her hair braided wears unusually long extensions that stretch out into the community. “Through hair braiding, this Ghanaian woman becomes the center of attention in Asafo, a town in Kumasi, Ghana.” Osei states.

Young visitor at the opening of Adornment viewing EXTENSIONS, a video by Yvonne Osei

Seth Aryee

Seth is a Ghanaian-born artist based in Minnesota, USA. He works in the medium of photography to highlight the glamour in dark complexions and to promote the relevance of black identities. During Seth’s upbringing, he experienced numerous negative perspectives about dark skin, a complexion that he wore himself. Over the years, he has dedicated his creative work to positively influencing the way people see and interact with black subjects who dominate his photographs. He would like to be remembered as the artist that glorifies brown-skinned people.

Your grid of nine photographs makes me sing Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” song. I find the line that compares brown skin to pearls particularly interesting. Do you see brown skin as an adornment in itself?

I see melanin as a God-given adornment. I try to use my work to bring light to the beauty that radiates through brown skin.

A grid of nine distinct photographs by Seth Aryee on display as part of “Adornment” in Millstone Gallery

How do you find and collaborate with your models? What is your artistic process like?  

I scout for models mainly through Instagram. Long before I find a fitting model, I draft several concepts and think about how I can make things work together in whatever theme I decide on. I believe that you’re not very different from what you see and surround yourself with so I expose myself to a lot of different artists that I draw inspiration from. My work is a reflection of a mix of ideas from others that have been filtered through my own modifications, additions and twists. It’s a constant cut, modify and paste creative process.

There are these abstracted moments created with flat colors that form the jewelry of your subjects or fill the background of your photographs. Can you talk about the use of flat colors in your work?

I use flat colors as contrast to the skin tone. I have yet to use a color that I didn’t like. I feel like all colors were made for the brown skin. They just go together. The flat colors you see as jewelry on subjects were not added in post-production. I had my models wear jewelry shaped in simple geometry and flat colors for the shoot.

“Nyakim and Nyajj” photograph by Seth Aryee, 2018

You mentioned that you want to be known as the artist that glorifies black people. What fuels your desire to be remembered in this way and what do you want viewers to take away when they see your photographs?

I want viewers to see my photographs and not grow tired of seeing them. You know you can get a tattoo and after some years, you’re bored with it and wished there was something else there. I don’t want people to have that feeling when they look at my work. My desire to be remembered as an artist that glorifies black people comes from not hearing positive things about the brown skin complexion growing up. I also get fed up with Google results. When I search for certain things, there is never enough brown people on the first page of the searches. I have dedicated my work to showing the beauty and glamour in brown-skinned people.

Student from Brittany Woods Middle School viewing “You’ve Earned It”, a photograph by Seth Aryee created in 2019.

Yowshien Kuo

Yowshien is a visual artist based in St. Louis, Missouri. He was educated in the United States and Taiwan, receiving his MFA in 2014. Yowshien has participated in group exhibitions at Granite City Art and Design District, The Luminary and LVL3 in Chicago. His solo exhibition was with The Bermuda Project. Yowshien works as a professor and co-owner of Monaco in St. Louis. In his work, the connotations that exist in our relationship to textiles and the clothing we wear are highlighted to intentionally challenge notions of fact and sociological discourse.

There is a beauty in how you address the complexities of American history through painted depictions of articles of clothing. Can you speak to the symbolic use of hats in your painting “How the West Was Won V2”?

There is an allure to the articles of clothing that are associated with cultural traditions and their implications. Considering America’s history in the context of “How the West Was Won V2”, I am reminded of a line I came across doing research that I will paraphrase, “A man without a hat is no man at all.” I believe headwear is a great signifier of social standing and symbols of power. There are several examples, such as in Chinese imperial clothing and in African ceremonial masks. These articles of clothing reformed the shape of the human figure to embody new meanings as forms that culturally signify a figure’s role in society.

Yowshien Kuo speaking to the audience about his painting “How the West Was Won V2” at the opening reception of Adornment in Millstone Gallery

Some viewers have mistaken your detailed plaid paintings to be actual plaid textiles. For you, what is the relevance of using the language of painting the way you do for your plaid works and where does your inspiration for the plaid paintings come from?

The choice to address the image of plaid through painting is derived from the American abstract expressionist movement in the mid-century that elevated America’s global status within the arts. This included large-scale abstract paintings with a fury of brushstrokes and unconventional methods of paint material and application. Their large scale was fueled to some extent, by a deeply rooted machismo attitude and suggested a demonstration of strength and power. A feeling that to me resembles the experience of being an American and reflects the way I see the West.

Today, plaid fabrics are seen in some respect as ordinary, universal and accessible patterns worn and used across cultures. The monumental presence of your painting, “After Paul Bunyan and Several Similar Folks Until Ice Cube” for example, shifts the way we see and experience what is commonly known as the buffalo plaid. What informs the scale of your paintings and the titles you assign them?

The large-scale comes from historical abstract American paintings that remind me of the phrase, “Go big or go home!” Which is very loaded if you identify as a minority. Americans assigned the outdoorsman, Paul Bunyan; the self made “pull yourself up by your own boot straps” figure to represent American ideas. This image culturally assigned plaid in America to his example, a symbol for the American hard worker, for many decades. In a music video (NWA), Ice Cube was seen in a flannel shirt, which was a public display of reclaiming people of color into the American identity story, hence the painting’s title.

The buffalo plaid (black/red) culturally functions as an earned social status symbol. I believe the presence in the painting is in its ordinariness. Its existing social connotations serves as the key to its power, confirming; no need to think twice about me, I assure you, you and I are a lot alike. This is what I mean by very loaded. The need to be a lot alike separates us as individuals and threatens a culture of rich diversity. It is easy to see beyond normalcy and the universality of it tends to veil some important truths that continue to be unheard.

“After Paul Bunyan and Several Similar Folks Until Ice Cube” painting by Yowshien Kuo, 2017

How do see your work relating to the theme of the Adornment exhibition?

My paintings fit very well with the themes of the Adornment exhibition. I am interested in both the luxury and celebration of culture through the language of textiles and garments while leaving room to reevaluate the social implications.

Artist Yowshien Kuo (second to right), standing in front of his painting “A Nod to Your Mob” with curator Yvonne Osei (middle), fashion designer Yoro Newson (second to left) and her two models Malia Rice (far left) and Brigita Martin (far right).

Yoro Newson

Yolanda is an award winning jewelry and accessories designer and the owner of Yoro Creations. She is a St. Louis native who credits her father for instilling in her the love for handcrafted artistry and the spirit of entrepreneurship. In 2012, Newson attended Grace Hill Womens’ Business Center. She works with recycled materials, found objects, metals, crystals and textiles. Her designs have been featured in several of magazines and fashion shows including Ebony magazine, ALIVE Magazine, Kansas City Fashion Week and the sitcom Zoe Ever After.

As the first time displaying your jewelry pieces in an art gallery in the context of an exhibition can you discuss what it was like to traverse between two spaces: fashion runways to art exhibition spaces? 

My experience participating in the Adornment exhibition has been life changing. I have a new perspective on showing my work for runways verses art exhibition spaces. I believe that the two arenas differ. For fashion runways, the audience is given an opportunity to see my jewelry pieces in motion along with all the glitz and glam that goes on with fashion shows. However, for gallery spaces, the audience can enjoy the peaceful stillness of having my jewelry on a mannequin in place while viewing it up close.

Fashion Designer Yoro Newson standing next to her three jewelry pieces in the Millstone Gallery.

You had two live models wearing your jewelry pieces and cat walking in the gallery space during the opening of the Adornment exhibition. What inspired your decision to present your work in this way and what was it like collaborating with your models? 

I decided to have live models along with the mannequins at the Adornment exhibition opening to show the audience what my jewelry pieces look like on actual bodies verses on the mannequins, and having the models catwalk in the gallery showed the audience what my pieces look like in motion. My collaboration with the models was great! I am constantly paying attention to the comfort of my models. My models, Malia Rice and Brigita Martin really enjoyed presenting my work to the audience.

Fashion Designer Yoro Newson discussing her jewelry pieces at the opening reception of Adornment and accompanied by her models Malia Rice (right) and Brigita Martin (left) who are both wearing her creations.

There is a direct relationship with jewelry as objects of adornment. How do you see your jewelry pieces elevating your wearer’s look and what inspires your creations? 

I am inspired by a plethora of things from what my African ancestors wore in ancient Egyptian times, to nature, to home décor, to fashion trends, to whatever I conjure up in my head. For me, jewelry is like having the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae. Your confidence is in your smile, but jewelry can make it shine even more. Jewelry on a beautiful ensemble ties everything together.

Detailed photograph of fashion Designer Yoro Newson’s jewelry pieces: “Show Me Off”, 2015  (left), ”For Your Glory”, 2018 (center) and  “Ushindi”, Swahili word meaning Truiumph , 2017 (right) displayed as part of the Adornment exhibition.

As a St. Louis born and raised jewelry designer, how has the city impacted your work over the years?

My city, oh my city! I love my city! I grew up in North St. Louis, between O’Fallon Park and Fairground Park. I had so many influences of becoming a self-taught designer, but my number one influencer was my father, Willie Lee. I called him Poppa. He was a creative as well and impacted my creativity deeply. He took me almost everywhere he went so I was able to see St. Louis’ best and worst neighborhoods, but with each area holding a certain beauty in them. Seeing the changes in the city has always enlightened my ability to pull the beauty out of it. I have learned to keep those memories of traveling around the city with Poppa in the treasure box of my mind, which helps me to keep my designs true to who I am and where I come from.

Basil Kincaid

Basil is a post-disciplinary artist from St. Louis, Missouri. Kincaid studied drawing and painting at Colorado College, graduating in 2010. Kincaid has exhibited work internationally in Malmö Sweden, Taipei Taiwan, Montpellier France, and Accra Ghana. He has also exhibited nationally in New York, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, and with Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago. Kincaid’s work focuses primarily on legacy, heritage, reclamation, healing, labor, and self-mastery. His next solo show opens this September in London at Carl Kostyal Gallery.

Adornment also features three quilted works by St. Louis based multidisciplinary artist Basil Kincaid. His works are often made out of found, donated and personal materials including clothing and upholstery. Influenced by his grandmother, he considers his quilts to be a spiritual collaboration with his ancestors and to share in a legacy that precedes him and will eventually out live him.

Students from Brittany Woods Middle School during a school trip to the Millstone Gallery viewing “Spirit in Transformation”, Quilt Soft Sculpture by Basil Kincaid created in 2016-19.

Kincaid states “Quilting as a practice is saturated on both sides of my family dating back over 100 years. Quilting opens a portal for me to exist with all of my ancestors that maintained the practice and potentially beyond. Upholding family traditions in the face of oppression is essential within my healing process. Quilting within the black cultural tradition has always served as a revolutionary space of joy, courage, and community in direct contrast to social and financial subjugation.”

Adornment is curated by Yvonne Osei, artist and COCA’s curator in Residence and on view at the Millstone Gallery till January 12, 2020. Featured artists include Seth Aryee, Basil Kincaid, Yowshien Kuo, Yolanda Newson and Yvonne Osei. The Millstone Gallery at COCA is proudly sponsored by the Arthur and Helen Baer Charitable Foundation with additional support from the Millstone Foundation and the Missouri Arts Council.

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