There was a familiar sound upon entering COCA and turning the corner towards the doors of Millstone Gallery for the opening reception of “Adornment” by curator-in-residence Yvonne Osei. It’s a buzz anyone versed in black culture will instantly recognize.
The entryway of the small gallery was transformed into a mini-barbershop with a small boy getting the finishing touches on his fade as guests gazed upon him and other elements of the exhibition that continues through December 15.
“This is performance art titled, ‘The Gallery at Barbershop,’” Osei said. “My wish is to re-envision what a gallery can be and to bring in the community. The viewer is not only someone who looks, but they are someone who participates. We have to activate the viewer in an exhibition where there is a tangible activation.”
Thanks to what Osei and the artists she enlisted for the exhibition, many of the guests – some who were visiting a gallery for the first time, and others who are accustomed to two-dimensional exhibitions – were confronted with art as something to be experienced as well as viewed.
Osei uses the work of five artists – Seth Aryee, Basil Kincaid, Yowshien Kuo, Yolanda Newson and herself – to explore the intersection of art as a thing and a state of being with “Adornment.”
“You have some wonderful artists exploring the theme of beautification of the human body,” Osei said. “Exploring how can the human body be presented as a beautiful ‘object’ and how it can activate the act of beautifying in itself.”
Just beyond the fully stocked pop-up barbershop that included a barber chair, full-length mirror and fully stocked barbering product and tool station were two statuesque models holding still enough to win a mannequin challenge. They were draped in beautiful garments made of lace and sequence topped off by the added bling of ostentatious jewelry made from gold rope and rhinestones.
“Fashion can change in the click of a moment,” Newson said as she stood before her work that displayed items of clothing on sewing torsos and live models.
When the models turned to expose their backs, the dresses took on new shape with different jewelry and style lines.
“You never know whether you are in style or out of style,” Newson said. “Just as these beautiful models turned around, that’s how fashion does.”
The exhibition is style-driven, from the paintings inspired by certain prints to mixed media work that incorporates actual clothing patches.
“I really been thinking about this idea of adornment,” Osei said. “What does it mean? And when you look at the definition of ‘adornment,’ it’s to beautify – right? But it’s also not just a noun.”
The relationship between art being a noun and art being a verb – something that is happening or something in the act of – sparked her curiosity, as did incorporating fashion and clothing. Clothing is of particular interest to Osei because it transcends public and private spaces.
“Whatever clothes you put on your body, you do that in a very private space,” Osei said. “But when you walk out of that door, it ceases to be private and becomes a communal experience.”
She loves the idea of artists – like many people do with their wardrobes – using clothing as a medium to express themselves.
“The clothing that we put on our body becoming these art objects that live in museums and gallery spaces is very interesting. Clothing becomes memorabilia,” Osei said. “The object moves back into having human sensibilities because when you wear clothing, it becomes a part of you.”
Clothing informed the art of Kuo, an artist of Asian descent, from a place of exclusion.
“It’s just based on my own personal experience and being a minority, specifically in the Midwestern landscape,” Kuo said of his three paintings that are featured. “These are all driven from things that felt like systems of power that I have not been included within.”
The title of a large-scale painting that mimics the pattern and color of flannel entitled “After Paul Bunyan and Several Other Similar Folks Until Ice Cube” gives context to his intention.
“It’s about the relationship from Western cultures to cultures outside of Western nations,” Kuo said. “Foreigners and minorities are presented as of alien status within most colonized territories.”
Aryee, a Ghanaian artist based in Minneapolis, turns the concept of Eurocentric beauty standards within cultures on its head by using the darkest skin he can find and juxtaposing the ebony hues against bright colors and shapes.
“Seth is really fascinated with the idea of black skin,” Osei said. “He told me that growing up he didn’t hear great stories about blackness or living in black skin. So, what he does as a photographer is take black bodies and present them in beautiful ways. He wants to be known as an artist who celebrates black identity, black culture and being black.”
‘Adornment’ will be on display at COCA’s Millstone Gallery through December 15. For more information, visit www.coca-stl.org.