What’s Up at the BMA: All in the Dressy Details

/ What's Up at the BMA

Details of Matrilineage:  Dress Form #1 by lillian Blades.
Matrilineage: Dress Form #1. Lillian Blades, 2004. Mixed media assemblage. Museum purchase with funds provided by Dick Coffee and donations in memory of Jeanie Coffee, 2004.52.

While it may seem as though the Museum doesn’t change often, it’s actually just the opposite: the galleries are changing every single day! A mere 12% of the Museum’s collection of 27,000 objects is on view at any given time, so our preparators are constantly working to rotate and refresh our gallery spaces.

Each month, we will highlight something new for you to experience and to show you “what’s up” at the Museum right now.

If you’ve visited our African Gallery lately, you probably noticed the beautifully detailed and brightly colored dress sculpture that now stands proudly on display. This monumental work in the shape of a woman’s dress references the maternal ancestors of Lillian Blades, an artist born and raised in the Bahamas and currently living in Atlanta. The artist’s late mother, for whom Lillian is named, was a well-known seamstress in Nassau. The tragic passing of her mother, who died in childbirth while in labor with Lillian, has informed much of Blades’ work.

This mixed-media sculpture is composed of a wooden base, onto which many objects have been attached. The bright, colorful, African-inspired fabrics create a visual link to the artist’s mother, but they have been stretched over frames, much in the way a painter stretches canvas over a frame, linking her mother’s art with her own practice of painting. The fabric frames are assembled somewhat like the squares of a quilt, again evoking women who stitch both clothing and covers to protect us.

With this work, Lillian is recalling a tradition practiced by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who honor their ancestors with a masquerade called egungun. Lillian has also drawn upon the Kongo tradition of nkisi wooden “power figures.” These figures are present when people make solemn promises in return for help from their ancestors. Every promise and petition for help is marked on the object itself with nails or twine. The nails on the upper portion of Lillian’s dress form remind us of this sacred African practice.

The dress also evokes the African and African American practice of memory jars, vessels that are embedded with small objects that a person held or used during his or her lifetime. She has attached spools of thread, kitchen trivets, and other things that represent her mother’s life and work. There is a door knocker placed close to where the heart would be located. In many African cultures, there are special ways to call the spirits to be present – sometimes by tapping, sometimes by ringing bells. An open-work box in the center of the dress is filled with calabashes – traditional symbols of a woman’s fertility.

Visit the Museum soon to see all the beautiful details of this work in person!