Dress Code: A group show exploring the close connection between clothing and cultural identity

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From the series Ekifire © Frédéric Noy.
All images courtesy of Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

From New York drag queens to rituals in Benin and Togo, and religious folklore in Mexico and Italy, the Arles exhibition interprets the legacy of worldwide coded traditions that influence how people dress

In a poem published in the anthology Women in Clothes (2014), Mira Gonzalez writes: “Now we have learned to live with the burden/Of being somehow in the aftermath of events/That never occurred in our own lives.” This sort of cultural inheritance can be a burden as much as a means of belonging, corralling us in ways we might not have otherwise chosen. Dress Code – an exhibition on view until 25 September 2022 at the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation, within the context of Les Rencontres d’Arles – wrestles with this idea of “being somehow in the aftermath”, of dealing with expectations and presentation informed by long-standing rituals and codifications, both welcome and unwelcome. Artistic director Florent Basiletti skipped past fashion photography to feature sartorial traditions without much mainstream (read: Western) visibility. It is identity by way of vêtement, including explorations of the gender spectrum, underpinned by a documentary approach. Basiletti sees Dress Code as multiple dialogic exhibitions. “This photography changes and adapts,” Basiletti says. “It’s impactful and theatrical.” Tellingly, there is no specified circuit for the visitor to follow as they make their way through the meanderingly structured former hôtel particulier.

From the series Land of Ibeji © Sanne de Wilde & Bénédicte Kurzen.

Sartorial appearance is a cultural instrument and always has been. Basiletti’s own incipient reference of identity-by-way-of-vêtement was the local Arlésienne – a figure in a long skirt and petticoat, ribbon in hair. Basiletti was also spurred on by the PhD of his friend Lila Neutre, a classmate from the ENSP (École nationale supérieure de la photographie) in Arles. An excerpt of her text opens the show, with words in bold – allure, distinction, artifice, fluidity – that examine clothing through subcultures, from roller derby to voguing. 

 

Belgian Sanne de Wilde and French photographer Bénédicte Kurzen provide another pillar for Basiletti. Their collaborative series Land of Ibeji, which won at the 2019 World Press Photo awards, plays on the mythology of twins in Nigeria. The rate of twins born in West Africa is four times higher than anywhere else in the world; the statistics are even steeper in south-west Nigeria. The duo adds to this story (‘Ibeji’ means ‘double birth’ and ‘the inseparable two’ in Yoruba) with symmetrical placements of works: two rooms with doubling or mirroring juxtapositions. De Wilde, who is fascinated by genetics, and Kurzen, who is invested in post-colonial representation, developed an experimental aesthetic – painting over photographs, glittering the image – to render the magical quality of the phenomenon. 

From the series Fleurs de L’isthme © Delphine Blast.

Regional tradition 

On the ground floor, Mathieu Richer Mamousse’s Anima, images of religious folklore – such as a patchwork of behatted processions and ruffle-wearing devotees from Mexico to Italy – hang several storeys up a blue wall. Visible from multiple angles and floors, this series provides the exhibition “with a sense of unity” and is strategically “at the heart of the space,” says Basiletti. Mamousse’s work has resonance with the pairing of Michela Benaglia and Antonio D’Ambrosio: the former photographs people in ancestral masks, the latter a pagan rite that marks the beginning of carnival in a small Sardinian municipality. 

 

Two additional and ultra-vibrant series further share a reverence for long-standing regional custom, emphasising the vivacity of textile. Delphine Blast spotlights Zapotec women in southern Mexico, whose matrilineal heritage and Indigenous identity is proudly epitomised in embroidered tops (huipil) and lace headdresses (resplandor). Blast frames her portraits in floral waxed cloth, alluding to the market stalls of Juchitán, where Graciela Iturbide once photographed. Blast’s work is adjacent to Bruno Cattani’s Voodoo series on rituals in Benin and Togo, where members of the community are believed to be possessed by the spirits of their ancestors while donning patterned garments. Like Blast, Cattani uses bold textiles as photographic trim. Basiletti describes this artisan-like flourish as cementing their “commitment to bring materiality back to images, into the object”. 

 

On the first floor, Manon Boyer’s series Under Your Skin spotlights New York drag queens, seen composing themselves in dressing rooms with eyeshadow and bodystockings, lamé and tulle. Boyer was initially drawn in by drag queen Anà Valbanana, as well as a young ‘drag kid’ she encountered on Coney Island. The bodies Boyer features are in states of gender transformation, showcasing the power of revamping and reinventing. A counterpoint to this sense of queer production is down the hall, hushed testimonials from stigmatised LGBTQ+ community members in various parts of the African continent filmed by Frédéric Noy (legislations differ on LGBTQ+ rights across countries, but Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda are especially dangerous, without any social protection whatsoever). Another film, Elena by Jeanne Frank, follows a Sarajevo-based trans woman in a place where her identity is not fully accepted. 

From the series Plastic Crowns © Phumzile Khanyile.

Phumzile Khanyile’s self-portrait series Plastic Crowns, meanwhile, casts aside reinvention for granular aesthetics: Khanyile is her own pared-down model, photographed with a shiny face and wearing slouchy garments that are not even always garments. Her dismissal of a poised feminine dress to instead be low-key casual is empowering. Raised by her grandmother, and the stereotypical ideas around womanhood she espoused, Khanyile states, “This work is me screaming”. Khanyile presents herself as the subject and thus has control over her portrayal. By contrast, providing a stark shift of perspective, Robin Block de Friberg’s work Sous les Jupes alludes to being observed unwillingly. While travelling in Japan, the photographer learned that phones there were designed to trigger a signal when taking snapshots – a tactic to alert others and dissuade anyone from taking discreet photos in public spaces. The images – despite the appearance of unsolicited upskirt impropriety – were all shot consensually in De Friberg’s studio. They are on display in an alley observable through a window in Khanyile’s exhibition, continuing the theme of voyeurism. 

From the series Blood Orange © Liza Ambrossio.

On the last floor is an annex programme with Fotohaus, featuring work by Daniel Castro Garcia, Elina Brotherus, Sara Imloul, and Torsten Schumann; work from French agency Tendance Floue’s group project is across the street. These are only loosely connected to Dress Code but reflect the way aesthetic choices can always,to some degree, reveal something, even when they’re not the focus. Other highlights include last-minute additions to the exhibition of three emerging Ukrainians – Dmitry Eret, Katerina Kirtoka, and Yevheniia Kriuk – part of a new generation creating visuals that speak beyond wartime emergency. 

 

Liza Ambrossio’s peculiar series Blood Orange (notably the unsettling image of crab claws on her fingertips) concludes the exhibition. Basiletti explains closing the show with Ambrossio as a way to “end on the folly of things”. This folly is, ultimately, fundamental to the beauty of getting dressed. Heading back out to the street and seeing normal, everyday outfits, there’s a feeling of anticlimax, but also the promise of possibility 

Dress Code is on show at the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation, Arles, until 25 September 2022.

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. Her words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.