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'Afrofuturism' at Taubman showcases design work of Oscar-winner Ruth E. Carter of 'Black Panther' and decades more

'Afrofuturism' at Taubman showcases design work of Oscar-winner Ruth E. Carter of 'Black Panther' and decades more

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Guest Curator with the Taubman Museum of Art, Julia Long, give tour of the new exhibit- FOCUS ON RUTH E. CARTER: AFROFUTURISM IN COSTUME DESIGN. Video by Heather Rousseau

Many elements must coalesce in order to make a great movie: a strong script, engaging actors and a skilled cinematographer among them. And then there are the costumes, weaving their literal threads through every scene — wordless yet eloquent players helping to tell the story at hand. But the costume designers often fly under the radar, conjured by name for many moviegoers only on Oscar night.

Now one of these Oscar-winners is the subject of a marquee exhibit at the Taubman Museum of Art. “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” is a retrospective of four decades of work by one of the most heralded designers in contemporary filmmaking. The exhibit kicks off on Friday, with a members-only preview, followed by a gala opening party on Saturday, with Carter herself as one of the hosts. It opens for general viewing on Sunday.

Carter, born in Springfield, Massachusetts, received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts at Hampton University, in 1982. She apprenticed at the Santa Fe Opera before moving to Los Angeles to launch what would become a distinguished career. Among her more than 60 film and television credits are Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” and 2018’s highly acclaimed Ryan Coogler-directed “Black Panther,” for which Carter won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design — the first time a Black designer has received this honor.

You needn’t have seen “Black Panther” to envision the late Chadwick Boseman in the title role, wearing his imposing, form-fitting bodysuit. Such is the power of costume design when it resonates so strongly with its subject. This now-iconic garment is one of several from “Black Panther” and among many displays in the new Taubman exhibit. Separate vignettes feature other Carter credits, including “Selma,” “Coming 2 America” and the television miniseries “Roots.”

“What drew me to her was seeing the amount of research she does,” guest curator Julia Long said. “She really dives into the world of the characters she’s [designing].”

The exhibit took about a year to develop, starting in Pittsburgh in 2018, shortly after “Black Panther” hit theaters. The movie’s powerful story and blockbuster success raised public awareness of Carter’s art. Given the timing, Long calls the exhibit “kind of a quarantine project.” It debuted in December 2020 at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, in Atlanta. Its organizers set out to create an exhibit that could travel, and when Taubman Museum Executive Director Cindy Petersen saw what had taken shape at SCAD, she set out to bring it to Roanoke.

“We wanted to be the first” traveling stop, she said.

The name “Afrofuturism” derives from its combination of technology, tradition and culture — a new way of looking at what Africa is. Long, the curator of Carter’s personal costume collection, noted that Carter tends to see all of her characters as heroes, in a spectrum including such real-life figures as Dr. Martin Luther King leading the Civil Rights movement through Alabama; such everyday people as Spike Lee’s Mookie delivering pizza through the streets of Brooklyn; and Marvel Comics inventions like T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda.

“When you look at her body of work, you see common threads — of people finding their way against all odds, grounded but growing into who they are intended to be,” Long said.

The exhibit features more than 60 Carter designs, showcasing the incredible degree of detail she puts into telling a character’s story, even those who only get a few seconds on screen, through what they wear. Angela Bassett, Eddie Murphy, Lupita Nyong’o, Rosie Perez, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington have worn her designs onscreen. In the museum setting, visitors will have a chance to linger over a more three-dimensional view of each garment than they can get in the theater, revealing subtle touches that include linings of the Zoot suits in “Malcolm X” or the delicate stitching on the royal robes of “Coming 2 America.”

Press materials about the exhibit read, in part: “Carter’s deep understanding of character, combined with her nuanced use of color and texture, has made her an essential storyteller committed to sharing the past, present, and future of Black culture.”

Beyond the costumes themselves, the exhibit will include a process space, with artifacts such as Carter’s first sewing machine, production sketch boards, and a video display running clips from Carter’s movies, which will help visitors better connect the costumes in the show to their moviegoing experiences. Backdrops from SCAD-educated Brandon Sadler, who also produced murals for “Black Panther,” will enhance the installation.

Visitors will have access to a comprehensive digital guide with extensive details that supplement the galleries’ information.

In addition to guest curator Long, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” is co-curated by Rafael Gomes, director of fashion exhibitions, and Christina Frank, assistant director of fashion exhibitions, at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film. More than a dozen local, regional and national sponsors have helped make this exhibit possible.

“Afrofuturism” will run until April 3, 2022.

Installation multiverse“Afrofuturism” is the centerpiece of a multi-installation exhibit collectively called “Fashioning the Future,” with two of the four additional shows having tie-ins to the Carter exhibit.

In “All That Glitters: Iconic Jewelry and Hollywood Style,” guest curator and celebrity stylist Micaela Erlanger has assembled a collection of stunning jewelry worn either in films or on the red carpet. In addition, Erlanger has curated an exhibit of some of her favorite pieces from the Taubman’s permanent collection of Judith Leiber handbags and accessories. Erlanger will join Carter as co-hosts of the Nov. 13 gala event.

Also on view will be “Tech Couture: Fashion in the Digital Age,” which explores the intersection of artistry and technology; and “E.V. Day: Divas Ascending,” in which creatively repurposed New York City Opera costumes are suspended above the atrium like sculptural clouds.

“The artists featured in the ‘Fashioning the Future’ exhibition suite have broken barriers, opened hearts and minds, and transformed society through their visionary work,” Petersen said in a statement. “We are honored to share the work and stories of these women in our galleries.”

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