What does it mean to be considered “fashionable” in our society? Jamea Richmond-Edwards boldly tackles this, and how status and access can shape perspective, through her solo exhibition, Fly Girl Fly, currently on display at New York’s Kravets Wehby Gallery. Raised in Detroit, the 35-year-old artist creates mixed media portraits that shed light on the relationship between black women and luxury fashion, drawing on inspiration from her own family and environment. The exhibition gives us pure black girl magic, enhanced by the of utilization cut paper collage, paint, graphite, and ink on canvas. Her subjects are black women whose often blank faces and bodies stand in stark contrast to the vibrant hues of their clothing and backgrounds.
Upon entering the gallery, one’s eyes are drawn to the vibrancy of her subjects’ clothing, heavily textured tapestries of color and patterns made of sequins, rhinestones, paper, and textiles, alluding to high fashion editorials. The collaged layers of the multidimensional clothing are unpredictable in their patterning, reflective of the complexity of black women living in a society that continuously tries to box them in. These women are not here for it, donning natural hairstyles of varying designs, effortlessly posing for the viewer. Their gaze is direct unless some fashionable item has taken priority of their attentions, creating an intimate perspective between subject and viewer. It’s a moment that says: see me not as you are, but as I am, here and now, unapologetic. Whether these items were procured directly from stores, procured by “boosters,” or are just straight knock-off replicas, the message has always been the same: “all eyes on me.”
Growing up in Detroit at a time where the auto industry was still booming, the artist remembers her mother perpetually dressed to the 9’s, and keeping her children stylish during a period where Detroit afforded a blue collar middle class previously unseen for people of color. “In high school, every day was a fashion show,” Richmond-Edward recalls. Gator shoes, Coogi sweaters, designer bags, and the like, were all viewed as status symbols, an indicator of access to a world that is notorious for its discrimination.
This is addressed in her work, a reflection that still rings true in today’s America, where black women are one of the major consumers of luxury fashion but are hardly the target demographic. Yet, black women are more likely to buy brand name items, spend more on high-quality items, and are also more loyal to the brands that they support. The lack of black women in fashion ads was previously critiqued by model Dede Howard in a series called Black Mirror, inspiring a question Richmond-Edwards raises in the series: “If they’re not treating us well, why do we consume it?” She alludes to the status symbols of luxury items, and the identity consumerism has branded us with, mirrored in the proud poses of her models as they don their latest fashions.
The watercolor backgrounds of the portraits give an effervescent effect where the environment--accentuated by warm tones of pinks, purples, and blues--may change, but the women remain unmoved. Richmond-Edwards’ work exemplifies how black women have always sought elegance, poise, and style, even if their world doesn’t reflect that (and even when the pain in their faces tell another story).
Her “7-Mile Girls” series, apparently named after 7 Mile Road in Detroit where the artist grew up, was especially moving, highlighting girls who appeared resilient, bold, and still beautiful, even when faced with dire circumstance.
The artist, who received her MFA from Howard University after graduating magna cum laude at Jackson State University, has had work shown at the PRIZM Art Fair, Delaware Art Museum, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum, and in numerous exhibitions at Long/Sharp Gallery, Pennsylvania College of Art and Design and more. She was listed as one of Huffington Post’s “Black Artists: 30 Contemporary Art Makers Under 40 You Should Know,” her work collected by numerous private collectors. She was even recently featured on the television show Empire. Yet she remains just under-the-radar of the mainstream art world. Hopefully, this is about to change.
Photographs do her work little justice; this is a show that must be experienced in person. “Fly Girl Fly” how black women, through fashion, are free to be their best selves, whether they are welcomed into the world of luxury, invite themselves in, or build their own world. Either way, they demand a place at the table. Jamea Richmond-Edwards’ exhibit is a testament to their resilience, giving the viewer an opportunity to also examine themselves and their relationships to status and fashion.
“Fly Girl Fly” is on display until April 28th at Kravets Wehby Gallery; 521 West 21st St., New York; viewing hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6pm. kravetswehbygallery.com.