Director of the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora (CIAD), and our MA History and Culture of Fashion coursemate, Teleica Kirkland has just launched her first exhibition at Craft Central, London. Featuring garments from Vivienne Westwood and the Black Watch Museum, Teleica speaks about the process of putting together Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora, and how she negotiated this alongside coursework.
Hi Teleica! Please can you tell us what inspired Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora?
Whilst researching dress history in the Caribbean I realised that many of the islands had a tradition of using madras fabric in their national costumes, and I had a cursory knowledge of it having something to do with Scotland. I then decided to investigate further and found out the history of madras and how it came to the Caribbean. This then led me onto finding out why certain communities in Africa have a tradition of wearing tartan style patterns. Once I started to collate a catalogue of information the exhibition, and the wider project, started to come together.
Why do you think that this exhibition is important now?
This is classic hidden history – hidden in plain sight – that many people are not asking questions about, maybe because they don’t know that the questions need asking. This exhibition speaks to the people whose history and culture are ignored while at the same time exploited. This exhibition is important at this time because it highlights a need to have more information about dress practices from other parts of the world. As the planet gets more and more populated the world seems to get smaller. It doesn’t make sense in an increasingly shrinking world to always see everything through the lens of one point-of-view. This is CIAD’s small contribution to trying to redress the balance.
Please can you tell us a little bit about CIAD?
The Costume Institute of the African Diaspora (CIAD) is an organisation established to increase the understanding of dress and adornment history and culture from across Africa and the African Diaspora. Our tagline is “Engage, Educate, Exhibit”, and we try and do that through various platforms. This includes our “Exchange” forum where we get industry insiders to come and talk about a particular topic and the audience asks questions. CIAD has been established for around three years now, but this is our first major exhibition.
What can we expect to see from CIAD next? Are you currently planning any future exhibitions?
Future projects will include the development of courses, a steady programme of workshops, and the development of the CIAD archive. The archive is incredibly important as that is the core of the organisation and the bank where all of our research will go. As for more exhibitions, not at the moment. I am in the process of finishing my MA, so I’m trying to focus on my research for that right now.
Did you uncover anything surprising when doing the research for this exhibition?
The relationship between the Zulus from the Shembe Church and tartan was very surprising, but also understandable once you have a grasp on the mechanisms of colonialism. Still, it’s an odd one to get your head around.
How long did it take to organise?
Researching and conceptualising took a couple of years, then planning took about a year, and finally putting everything together took seven or eight months. We could really have done with more time but we managed to get it done in the time we allocated.
How did the V&A get involved?
The Chair of the African Curators Group at the V&A got in touch because she had heard about my research. So I went to the V&A and met with a couple of people from the group and explained what I was doing, why, and how I planned to do it. They were incredibly supportive and wanted to know how they could help and get involved. I was then introduced to people from different departments who were able to help with the concept of the exhibition. Relationships were developed and cemented, and the V&A became one of the major partners of the project.
Did undertaking the History and Culture of Fashion course help with this exhibition?
Yes, it really has helped tremendously. Even if only to point out the holes I had in my original research. The course has given me a firm basis on which to ask pertinent and necessary questions, but has also highlighted problems with the critical gaze. Namely, that the critical gaze in relation to this subject ultimately comes from a place of limited socio-cultural understanding. I’m finding this a real issue at the moment, which is bringing up all manner of other questions that need to be discussed. It’s all terribly interesting but I’m not sure that there is time to really thrash it out.
How have you balanced organising this exhibition alongside your master’s work?
Only God knows! I won’t lie it hasn’t been at all easy. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons about overloading myself with work but, as I said, the project is wrapping up so I will be focussing on my MA from now on.
What advice would you give to aspiring curators/creative directors?
Plan, plan, plan. And when you’re done planning go over the plans and plan some more! I’ve learnt that there can never be enough planning and communication. This is vital to a relatively smooth and stress-free process! Also, find a subject that utterly grips you because it will become your life. Gather a team of supportive people and partners; there’s nothing lonelier or more frustrating than working with people who are unsupportive, and it can be detrimental to the work in all manner of ways. Finally, be confident in what you want and what you know. For however long you’re curating an exhibition you will become the expert on the subject matter, which means everyone and his dog will ask you every question relating to that subject!
Teleica is holding a gallery talk on Friday 29th August at 6.30-9.30pm. This free to attend event is the final chance to hear the Creative Director tell the story of how tartan travelled around the African Diaspora via India, followed by a drinks reception. Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora runs until 30th August 2014 at Craft Central, 33-35 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4DS. Entry is free and the exhibition is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Also, check out Lorraine’s write-up of the exhibition.