“I had no systematic way of learning but proceeded like a quilt maker, a patch of knowledge here a patch there but lovingly knitted. I would hungrily devour the intellectual scraps and leftovers of the learned.”
Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 1972
Fall 1980. An intellectual brotherhood converges on the campus of the historically black Howard University. Confidently dressed in the classics of the American college wardrobe - the academic’s button down oxford shirt, his jazz era tuxedo, indigo wide leg jeans with craft stitches. A gabardine mac fastened with tortoiseshell buttons. Earthly materials charged with intention. Mystical insignia and talismanic jewellery imbue varsity dress with an atavistic magic, weaving a sacred thread to the animist traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean. Fraternities in easeful tailored tweeds and herringbone adorned with an assemblage of found feathers. Breton knitwear, disrupted stripe rhythms. Polo shirts embroidered with logos inspired by Haitian vèvès, inflecting classicism with a vodou sensibility. Magic and ritual coalesce in silk patchwork robes created in collaboration with Harlem based artist Eric N. Mack - polyrhythmic threads.
Mumbo Jumbo takes its title from Ishmael Reed’s seminal 1972 novel. The collection considers the role of writers as oracles, connecting to a rich and magical lineage, serving as the custodians of ancestral wisdom passed down and reinterpreted. Words are collaged and transformed, becoming spells woven in cloth... Conjure... Revelations... A new language is manifested. Ancestral rites and rituals bring dress to life.
The Autumn Winter 2019 show is presented within Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition - A Time for New Dreams at the Serpentine Galleries on view until the 17th March. The exhibition provides a meditative space for reflection on mysticism, ritual and magic manifesting in aesthetic practice and traditions across the Black Atlantic.
The collection is dedicated to James Hampton, a visionary outsider artist who referred to himself as Saint James. Guided by religious visions, Hampton spent over a decade secretly assembling a large and complex shrine in a rented garage in Washington, entitled The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.
Honour the ancestors. Honour the lineage.
“Like Charlie Parker who obeyed the key signatures required by the songs he played, but did something different when improvising the chords attached to these songs, Grace Wales Bonner looks backward to traditional European modes of fashion, but comes up with original designs of hats, trousers, shirts, and outerwear. She ain’t no Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. She’s an artist. Grace told me that she respects tradition and it shows in her work, which might include pin stripes as well as cowrie shells used in Ifa Divination. She is correct to cite Thelonious Monk as an influence. Though some view Monk’s chord spellings as exotic, like the F Diminished 7/B slash chord that appears in the first bar of “April In Paris,” there are also some stride piano licks in the same piece because Monk, like Sun Ra, venerated tradition. Stride piano was popular in the 1920s, but not used by the Black avant-garde. As an Afro Futurist, Sun Ra looked back to Egypt and looked forward to space travel. It’s possible that Grace’s British-Jamaican heritage enabled her to “constellate around her rigorous and far-reaching research across multiple geographies and temporalities,” like having a third eye. This fits the Yoruba Aesthetic that was transferred to the Americas where it underwent modification and was capable of accommodating forms from other traditions. Our collaboration was inevitable because we are syncing across a common aesthetic.”
Ishmael Reed, 2019
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Interview conducted with Ben Okri, Athens c. 1994. Digital video, 26 min, colour, sound. Kindly provided by Stathis Paraskevopoulos.
Ishmael Reed plays Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now, 2008. Digital video, 02:14 min, colour, sound. Courtesy Ishmael Reed.
Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum, Brockport, New York, 1974. Digital video, 14:58 min, black and white, sound. Courtesy Ishmael Reed.
If it’s too neat don’t trust it
Ben Okri, 2019