Tensions & Flows - DADN Symposium at the V&A, London 28-29 September 2007

The 22 contributors to the symposium came from, or represented, different parts of the African diaspora, including Kwala-Zulu Natal (South Africa) Dakar and Saint Louis du Sénégal (Senegal) Bamako (Mali), Bahia (Brazil), Belgium, Britain, the Democratic Republic of Congo, France, Germany, Jamaica, Trinidad, Switzerland and the United States. They were theorists, curators, stylists, fashion designers, historians, established academics, fashion industry specialists and Ph.D candidates.

In a detailed report of the symposium, Christopher Breward (V&A) noted that the contributors demonstrated eloquently both the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, and the recovery of agency. He congratulated Carol Tulloch and all those involved for having ‘pulled the subject out of the shadows within dress history to emerge as a vibrant established field in its own right’.

Traditions, modernity and authenticity were thrown into question throughout, particularly in terms of studies on various parts of Africa. Papers provided complex alternatives to a closed history and closed sense of African dress and textiles. Speakers drew attention to the coexistence of traditional dress and different forms of modernity (Anitra Nettleton, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg); noted a need for more detailed histories of diasporic forms (John Picton, SOAS); and outlined the way people move in and out from the centre to the periphery, and back again, a more reflexive understanding of diasporic movement (Leslie Rabine, University of California at Davis).

Papers on the issue of place and performance encouraged the need to think across boundaries and disciplines, and revealed an interest in models of identity constructed by the archive, emphasizing its importance in this field of study, as well as its fragility. This focus continued within papers on the role of museums and galleries, which addressed the representation of African diaspora dress in archives and exhibition culture. Nicola Stylianou (TrAIN) discussed the lack of objects in the V&A in relation to the museum’s imperial history – an instance ‘where the museum acts as a block rather than a conduit for the flow of diasporic articles’; the Couture Communes workshop project (Kunstlerhaus Stuttgart, 2006) was cited as a model that enabled critical thinking about African diaspora dress and production.

Styling, photography, fashion installations and textile design were discussed as new directions for thinking about the different forms of contemporary expression of dress and the black self. Christopher Breward (V&A) discussed the notion of doubling, a continual negotiation that is part of the diasporic experience and one that is particularly marked through dress. This emphasis was continued through Van Dyk Lewis’ (Cornell, New York) discussion of the trauma of black fashion.

Summing up the symposium, Breward noted that the use of terms such as ‘blockage, reversal, looping back and knotting have been about stopping flows’. This then is a reminder that ‘the movement of people, the movement of objects, and the movement of ideas are not always so fluid, and not always so unimpeded’. To this end, all the papers demonstrated ‘the benefits of both grounded, focused studies and theoretically informed reflexiveness’ and showed ‘how work in this field needs to be inventive in its sources and show courage in its consideration of the politics of power and identity’. He petitioned that future work think about comparative aspects – how far can the experiences and artifacts of one diaspora be conflated or contrasted with those of another? How do the they fit in with a much broader histories of migration and exchange?

Tuesday 13 November, 2007