Reinventing racial imagery: Patrick Kelly at the de Young Museum

A fashion installation with the trigger warning and much to consider

Some of the hottest exhibitions at the de Young Museum have been fashion retrospectives — the work of designers Vivienne Westwood and Oscar de la Renta, the closet collections of the late “social X-ray” Nan Kempner. “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” should be no exception. Kelly, a gay Black designer who rose to brief and brilliant fame in the mid-1980s before dying in Paris of AIDS complications in 1990, created timeless, joyful designs from humble materials — tubular knits, heart-shaped candy boxes, jars of buttons.

What is exceptional about this fashion installation is the trigger warning that appears on the wall outside of the main gallery:

“This exhibition contains the use of anti-Black racist memorabilia that may be disturbing and potentially traumatizing. It aims to explore Patrick Kelly’s intentions in collecting these objects during the 1980s and provide a space for the critical and respectful exchange of ideas as we continue to think and talk about race in the United States.”

At a time when racist monuments are being removed from public spaces and parents are fighting over whether Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is “safe” for high school students, it’s intriguing to consider the work of an African American fashion designer whose signature motif was the golliwog, a black fabric or china doll with bugging eyes, huge red lips and a corona of hair standing on end.

The golliwog was one of the most common images of anti-Black racist popular culture meant to demean and demonize Black people. Kelly’s collection of “mammy” and golliwog dolls and figurines are displayed in the de Young exhibition as he had them in his Paris atelier. He reinterpreted these images in some of his designs. A cream knit bodycon dress is printed with cartoon graphics of golliwog faces. Sleek black knit gowns are covered in golliwog faces outlined in candy bright buttons. Aunt Jemima’s bandana kerchiefs festoon a white skirt. If you look closely at a knit cap on a model in the entrance runway, you may recognize it as an upgraded do-rag adorned with buttons.

What was Kelly thinking? Hard to say. According to Bjorn Amelan, who was Kelly’s business and life partner, Kelly didn’t really talk that much about race. Amelan, who is white, of French and Israeli descent, does not want to speak for Kelly’s perspective, but says, “I think he felt that as long as these objects are forbidden and tucked away, they keep their venom, their evil load. It is only by reconfiguring their context and owning them in a way that removes the intentions of their creation.”

Whether you will be upset — or even notice — this element of the show depends on your familiarity with these racist artifacts. Sequoia Barnes, an advising scholar on the Kelly exhibition and artist based in Edinburgh, Scotland, spoke on a panel for the de Young show. In a Zoom interview from Edinburgh, Barnes, who is 32, Black and from Mobile, Ala., said she didn’t grow up feeling bad about Aunt Jemima (me neither) because she associated her with Saturday morning pancakes (same here). But she acknowledged the surprise of seeing a 2014 Kelly show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It was quite shocking in a way — like, who let this happen?” Kelly’s audacity intrigued and impressed her.

Barnes said, “Learning about Patrick Kelly’s work and seeing the objects that he collected as well as the designs that he made and seeing such an overt combination between one’s Blackness and queerness and being unapologetic about it — I think that was really important for me.”

Barnes noted how Kelly reworked the golliwog logo for Robertson’s jam, a popular U.K. brand, for his signature, giving it a pretty, lipsticked mouth and earrings. “Not only is he re-appropriating this horrible figure that’s meant to look at Black men as grotesque, it’s also a sort of camping of this Black masculinity that white people have invented by dragging this golliwog up.”

The Kelly show is full of this queering — breaking something out of its “normal” context to make it say something new and sometimes oppositional to the old norm. Racist kitsch was meant to make Black people feel and seem ugly, unhuman and ignorant. But Kelly subverts those intentions by reworking the images to celebrate Black beauty and glamour. His golliwog dresses are sexy. His overall apron dress with brick-printed leggings is cute. His bandana-trimmed cocktail wear is not meant for sitting at home waiting for Jezebel to get back from the ball. Kelly’s designs are confusing for racists because they confound racist tropes. (If this idea interests you, check out Percival Everett’s short story “The Appropriation of Cultures.”)

Kelly makes me smile at something that was meant to make Black women feel ashamed. I see him doing what Black Americans, especially Black women, have long done: taking what’s left and creating something beautiful. The button box decorations, another Kelly signature, are another example of making so much more out of so little. As my people say, “Making a way out of no way.”

(Photo by Oliviero Toscani, Estate of Patrick Kelly, Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

(Photo by Oliviero Toscani, Estate of Patrick Kelly, Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Fashion model Michelle Blanch and her sister Denise Thompson befriended Kelly when he was just starting out in the industry in Atlanta in the mid-1970s. Blanch modeled for Kelly in Paris. She recalls she was taken aback when she first saw the golliwog designs and notes that although Kelly put the golliwog on his packaging in Paris, his American distributor refused to use it.

“I have to admit, and I was one of them, 95% of Black people were not ready for that,” Blanch said. Still, she eventually owned and wore one of the long black golliwog dresses and even added to it watermelon Kelly buttons.

Blanch described Kelly’s designs as “sly” because of the transformation that took place between the dress hanger and the body. Another dimension of the slyness was the coded messaging that not everyone was going to pick up.

“The Europeans didn’t get it,” she said. “But another Black American might get it.”

The de Young exhibition shows Kelly in exalted white spaces — literally, as the first American designer to be admitted into the prestigious French fashion organization Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, and figuratively, in portraits the great photographer Horst P. Horst took of Kelly modeled after famous portraits Horst took of Chanel and Schiaparelli.

Kelly wasn’t alone among queer Black artists in plumbing racist imagery to address Black experience. Pioneering gay Black filmmaker Marlon Riggs, who, like Kelly, succumbed to HIV in the early 1990s, explored the history of anti-Black racist memorabilia in his 1987 documentary “Ethnic Notions.” Riggs’ film, produced locally for KQED, was inspired by a huge collection of such memorabilia collected by Janette Faulkner, a Black Bay Area psychiatric social worker. Faulkner, who died in 2008, collected and showed the materials because she wanted people to reckon with its radioactive hatred. In “Ethnic Notions,” Riggs showed the history of how the character of “Jim Crow” was appropriated from a Black folk song by a white comedian who was imitating a crippled Black man.

The folding of Black into white into Black into white into Black through popular culture is a good way of thinking about Kelly’s reinventions.

One of those white into Black folds is the appearance of “Jezebel” herself, the great Bette Davis who played the antebellum vixen in the movie of the same name. Davis, who became friends with Kelly and Amalen, wore one of his outfits on the David Letterman show and helped seal the deal with his American distributor. She is buried in a Patrick Kelly dress. Kelly, born under Jim Crow in Vicksburg, Miss., is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his tombstone adorned with a golliwog and the words, “Nothing is impossible.”

Teresa Moore’s columns about race and equity appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

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