The exhibition ‘Tartan: Its Journey through the African Diaspora’, opened with a BANG last Monday 4th August 2014 at Craft Central Gallery in Farringdon, London. Colourful Caribbean dancers, Caribbean and African musicians and a superb Scottish piper celebrated the exhibition opening in a most stupendous fashion. Sun and rum welcomed the guests, as did Designer Laura Beckett’s eye catching Tartan ‘look’, which spilled beyond the gallery walls to cover lamp-posts (and even a tree!!) outside the gallery.
The fruit of many years of planning and research, this exhibition is the brainchild of Curator Teleica Kirkland, who is also Founder and Artistic Director of The Costume Institute for the Africa Diaspora (CIAD), and it forms part two of a three part project funded by HLF. Part one, a documentary, and part three, a rap performance with a newly commissioned score and choreography will be presented at the V&A on September 12th 2014. The exhibition is also a successful collaboration between CIAD and the V&A, within the framework of the V&A’s Caribbean and Africa Strategy initiatives.
Teaching the CIAD Team – From Wapping to Farringdon Heritage Lottery Funding was granted to the project in 2013, at which point the collaboration between CIAD and the V&A got off to a cracking start with the fine-tuning of planning and logistics. Ten costumes were chosen by Teleica to illustrate the Journey of Tartan through the African Diaspora, and a small group of recent graduates were drafted in to help prepare the ten costumes for the exhibition. The young CIAD team were a very diverse and international group of graduates hailing from Brazil, India, Israel, Russia, the UK and the USA. To help the graduates on their way, Susana Fajardo from the V&A Textile Conservation Studio and Gesa Werner, an Independent Costume Mounting Specialist, ran a series of workshops to share some of the skills and techniques used for displaying costumes here at the V&A. In a large, light and secure studio at Dock Cottages, Wapping, the young CIAD team, none of whom had any previous experience of mounting costumes, showed great dedication and enthusiasm in learning the tricks of the trade, over six weekends in June and July. Working from hand-outs provided by Gesa, and with Susana’s supervision, the graduates were quick to pick up all the necessary skills The studio in Wapping was also a perfect space to carry out filming for the documentary. The team were continually filmed as they worked, until just about everyone stopped being aware of the camera, now we can’t wait to see the results!
We have the Black Watch uniform! Obtaining the loan of a Black Watch uniform was crucial for the narrative of the exhibition, and CIAD is very grateful to Emma Halford-Forbes, Museum Manager from the Black Watch Castle & Museum, Perth for her support. Teleica undertook the marathon journey to and from Perth to collect the uniform, and once at Dock Cottages Susana and Teleica conditioned checked all the component parts of the uniform. Gesa prepared the display torso in advance, and after fitting, the uniform was re-packed and stored flat until installation day. The uniform was the only costume from the object list which required a case display as opposed to the open display. Robyn Earl from the V&A Exhibitions Department came to the rescue by facilitating the loan of a full size display case, for which everyone is very grateful! The Black Watch (BW) uniform is an ‘ensemble’ of parts. They have been placed together to illustrate the style of uniform worn by this regiment – originally know ‘42nd Regiment of Foot – during the mid-19th century. The oldest component in the ensemble is the 1882-85 sporran. The kilt with its silk ribbons, appropriate of the officer’s rank, and the red silk sash are dated 1911. the jacket peplum style is dated 1934, and the magnificent feather bonnet is dated 1914-1918.
The fantastic Vivienne Westwood CIAD is also very grateful to have the support of Vivienne Westwood, who loaned a costume from her latest collection to the exhibition. Susana prepared the display torso in advance, as the costume was to arrive at noon on the day of the opening! Raphael Gomes, Archive Manager at Westwood was mercifully very punctual, and once the costume was dressed, Raphael gave the ok to the ‘Westwood look’. Perhaps my favourite piece in the exhibition, the Westwood ensemble is fun and full of fantasy and historical references. The costume closes the circle of the narrative beautifully, and brings the Tartan story right up to date. Interestingly the costume employs recycled material for the skirt, while the jacket is an original Westwood tartan, woven exclusively for the Westwood label.
Weekends of hard-work over, now comes the show! Preparations for the installation began on the evening Friday 1st August, with Teleica and Susana meeting at Dock Cottages to pack and label everything. On Saturday evening, and after delivering all the packed mannequins and costumes to Craft Central earlier that day, the team collected the display case from the V&A. By 10pm on Saturday everything had been delivered to Craft Central, and we were ready to start installing the following day! The installation ran very smoothly, with two teams working under the supervision of Susana and Gesa. The V&A display case was beautifully polished by Kate and Georgia in readiness to receive the Black Watch uniform, which looks fantastic now it is in position. The use of plinths works well to create a sense of space, to define the visitor’s route and to protect the costumes from dust created at floor level. The use of the different Tartan lengths backing the graphic panels creates a colourful atmosphere and also contributes to define the trail of the narrative.
Tartan inspires students and visitors…..and travels to Cambridge!! In the run up to the exhibition, and in celebration of all things tartan, design students were invited to submit designs for garments incorporating tartan in some form. The winning design was then made up and is displayed as part of the exhibition. And, for anyone who loves to dress up, ‘GET WRAPPING’ is a great fun interactive activity for visitors to the exhibition. With a variety of tartan lengths at hand, the visitors are invited to try their hand at wrapping their own headdress. The exhibition will remain open during August, and in early September a reduced version will be shown at the Museum of Anthropology, University of Cambridge. There are plans to take the entire exhibition further afield, but these are yet to be finalized, so watch this space!