Art

Jae Jarrell examining her work (Ebony Family, 1968), at the Brooklyn Museum, April 2017
Photograph by Heatheart

Jae Jarrell: Revolutionary Fashion Designer

The Chicago artist Jae Jarrell has made art that is unusual in many ways. For one thing, her  “canvas” consists of wearable clothing. For another, her garments celebrate and illustrate Black American and African life, while at the same time exhibiting consummate care and craftsmanship. She has been quoted as saying “I believed in the well-tailored suit, and I know the basic classic fabrics quite well, all my life, because my grandfather was a tailor.” In other words, Jarrell’s “political” designs are always works of aesthetic beauty.

 

In an interview with the vibrant and articulate 88-year-old artist, I learned that her aim has always been to celebrate women. Instead of hanging on a wall, Jarrell’s art comes to life through the women wearing it. In her clothing design as well as her sculpture she relishes the idea of “coming off the wall.”

Jarrell may be the most positive artist to whom I have ever spoken   She trusts and celebrates human beings; and she says that she has never felt “invisible” as so many women have.  

And, yes, she still makes art.  It is “in my bones,” she said.  “And just so natural!”

 

 

In 1954 Jarrell opened her first store called “Jae of Hyde Park.” And in 1963 she had a debut show called “African Safari,” in which she combined a focus on Black Power with jazz combos, Chicago, and Chicago models.  The decolonization movements of the 1960s caused African influences to become stronger for Jarrell and other artists of color.  In 1968, Jarrell and her husband and a number of other Black artists founded AfriCOBRA (The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). For the men and women who joined AfriCOBRA, fashions that presented women as objects of male desire were anathema. Indeed, in this movement, Black women were treated as coequals in art, work, and activism.

Jarrell’s works from the 1960s stem from her desire to celebrate Black people through the beauty of color and texture, while incorporating themes and figures from the Civil Rights movement. 

We see one example of this in the image that heads this article, and is reproduced, in a smaller version, here:

 

The picture shows the artist looking at her Ebony Family, as it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017. Made of velvet with velvet collage, the Ebony Family dress is representative of outfits that Jarrell herself wore in her daily life. She made this dress while part of AfriCOBRA, intending this garment, consisting of bright “coolade” colors, to nurture a strong and loving Black family.   

At about the same time Jarrell made a different, “angry” two-piece suit of salt-and-pepper wool tweed, in which she incorporated a suede bandolier containing painted wooden fake bullets/crayon sticks. The artist’s original 1969 outfit has been lost, but Jarrell was able to reproduce it, as seen in this illustration.

 


Revolutionary Suit, 2010. Wool, suede, silk, wood, pigment, On dress form: 35 × 27 × 12 in.
(Photo: Image courtesy of Lusenhop Fine Art, by Tim Safranek Photographics, 2017.3a-b.jpg)

 

The suit had a double entendre. Jarrell considered the “ammunition” both an activist statement about revolution and fodder for creativity. It caused a sensation: about a month after the bullet belt suit was shown in the Studio Museum in Harlem, at AfriCOBRA, The New York Times social column featured several White models wearing it. It became something of  a fashion statement, and some felt that the White fashion world “appropriated” the design without acknowledging its significance.  Indeed, Jarrell thinks that the New York press took it out of context. She has been quoted as saying “So I questioned that, and Black World and Jet (two African American magazines at the time), I believe, did a story on my questioning… my impression is that they just simply tried to nullify the power of it by trivializing it and making it a trend.”

Another incredibly original garment Jarrell designed about the same time was a patchwork silk suit that used the motif of urban walls with graffiti on them.


Urban Wall Suit, ca. 1969
Dyed and printed silk with paint © Jae Jarrell

 

Jarrell stated that this suit had “all the statements of the ‘hood.’ It was important, because the language was who I was speaking to and I was saying, you know, I understand your newsletter on the wall…  And I join you. So it’s a…  a good place where you can post your attitudes and plights. And I thought, why not on a perfectly good silk suit, made to look like a wall?”

It is important to note that Jarrell spoke not only to women.  Her Gent’s Great Coat of 1973 was expressly made for men. 

 
Gent’s Great Coat, 1973. Suede.

 

Based on African dashiki designs, this Gent’s coat is stitched meticulously together on cowhide suede.  Jarrell created this garment both to withstand Chicago’s cold weather and to celebrate African pride. She has stated numerous times that she finds African design more modern than modern – an attribute that is apparent in this coat.

Jae Jarrell has a key position in the history of Black design and Black Power. She can also be considered a major twentieth- and twenty-first-century artist, one of the few clothing designers whose work has appeared in major art exhibitions. These include the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2014 exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties”; the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2015 exhibition “How to Remain Human”; and the 2015 exhibit “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MoCAC). In 2019, her work, which primarily focused on revolution-themed clothing, was also featured at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles in a special exhibition called “Soul of a Nation.”

Jarrell’s artistic and evocative garments belong to private collections and to a permanent collection in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

 

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Bios

Greta Berman received a B.A. from Antioch College, an M.A. from the University of Stockholm, and a Ph.D. from Columbia. She has been Professor of Art History at Juilliard since 1978. In addition to writing a monthly column, “Focus on Art,” for the Juilliard Journal, she co-curated and co-edited Synesthesia: Art and the Mind.  She has published numerous articles, as well as lectured on synesthesia and other subjects.  

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935, Jae Jarrell is a sculptor, painter, and fashion designer. Jarrell became involved in the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in the mid-1960s in her boutique on the south side of Chicago, which created the Wall of Respect mural in 1967. With her husband, Wadsworth Jarrell, she opened a small gallery below their home and studio, which hosted live jazz, exhibitions, and many early meetings of the Black artist collective later known as AfriCOBRA. Jarrell created groundbreaking wearable artworks that interpreted the ideas of the group, and developed methods of translating Black positivity into fashion.

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