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The silhouette is iconic: a stiffly corseted waist, a high collar, a generous bustle at the rear. From Jane Austen characters to Cinderella to modern-day brides, the Victorian-style dress has symbolized wealth and beauty for over a century. In a new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, however, VCC alumna and Jewellery Art & Design instructor Karin Jones is putting this classic figure in a whole new light.
Jones’ contemporary art installation, Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity, is the first work in Of Africa, a three-year multiplatform project meant to pay homage to African themes and artists in Canada. The piece is a black, Victorian-era mourning dress, a symbol of both high culture and sadness in late 19th century Europe. Instead of cloth, however, Jones has woven the dress entirely from the synthetic braids used in popular African hairstyles. Scattered beneath the dress are bolls from a cotton plant, as well as a few that were crafted from the artist’s own hair.
For Jones, this piece expresses her own complex identity as an African-Canadian. In her artist statement, she writes:
“The work underlines African hairstyles as a craft as refined as any decorative art produced in Europe; it alludes to the invisible labour of the thousands of Africans who contributed to the wealth of the British Empire… [It’s] a mythic figure born of the cross-cultural forces of colonialism, commerce, and slavery. I wear my African-Canadian identity much as a Victorian woman would have worn this type of dress: proudly, but also uncomfortably, shaped but also constrained by it.”
An inspired start
It’s been over 20 years since Jones graduated from VCC’s Jewellery Art & Design program, but she fondly remembers her time here. “I loved going through the whole two years with the same group,” she says, “I have some close and lasting friendships.”
Jones also appreciates the focus on technical training she received in the program, something not as comprehensively taught in art school-based programs.
Today, Jones’s CV includes exhibitions in Japan and the United States, articles in numerous magazines, items sold in shops from Vancouver to San Francisco and a Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) award for graduate work at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
Currently on hiatus from her Master of Fine Arts program, Jones has returned to VCC as a part-time instructor, something she has found quite rewarding. “The students feed my creativity as much as I help to feed theirs,” she says.
A beautiful progression
At first, it may seem like quite the leap to go from crafting intricate jewellery to weaving synthetic apparel, but for Jones, the progression was actually quite organic.
As a jewellery designer, Jones already had an interest the social customs of beauty. As an African-Canadian, she also held a longstanding unease about the trend to suppress natural black hairstyles. Motivated to raise awareness about this through art, Jones was first attracted to traditional Victorian hair jewellery—another popular trend of the era.
From there, she went on to learn weaving and lace-making techniques with the goal of recreating traditional European symbols of power, but from African-style braids. Eventually, in response to the ROM’s public call for its Of Africa series, Jones produced Worn, which has been extremely well-received.
Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity will be shown until November 1, 2015 at the ROM’s Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada.