Reading Fabiola Jean-Louis' 'Rewriting History' Art Series

‘Madame Beauvoir’s Painting’

My work is an inquiry into social change as it relates to race. It interrogates the reality of white capitalist patriarchy, the value of black lives, as well as, celebrates the black and brown female body through a haunting photographic essay and paper sculptures styled to mimic garments worn by female European nobility between the 15th – 19th centuries… The materials used for the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.
Rewriting History, Fabio Jean-Louis, Artist Statement

Rewriting History is an ongoing photography series, by Brooklyn-based artist Fabiola Jean-Louis, which captures the richly detailed and intricate costume styles worn by European nobility during the era of slavery into wearable paper sculptures that are juxtaposed by the black female bodies that they are worn upon. The series currently consists of eleven beautiful and poignant portrait photographs of black female models dressed in exquisite paper gowns and intentionally photographed in a way that imitates the look, setting, and style of portrait paintings of the era. According to the artist, the series photography-come-painting style was inspired by her love of visiting “museums and looking at Rembrandt paintings,” she also goes on to explain that “as much as I loved them I didn’t relate to them because they didn’t have many black and brown people… I yearned to see people that I can relate to in the museums so I decided to create a series that would do that.” By purposely positioning the black female body at the center and as the subject of her images, as opposed to the peripheries where black servants and slaves were likely to appear in portraits of this period (if included in the frame at all), Jean-Louis encourages her audience to not only celebrate the beauty and splendor of the black female body but also insists upon her audience that they recognize ‘the value of black lives,’ and ‘reconnect […] to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.'

To perceive Rewriting History as simply a visual project does the art series a grave injustice as it occludes the artist’s astute use of multi-media techniques to communicate her message to its audience. Rewriting History, as a photographic series, is substantiated by the project’s intention to, as inferred by the title, rewrite how we see the black body ‘through a haunting photographic essay and paper sculptures styled to mimic garments.’ While Jean-Louis is not the first photographer to produce a photographic essay, what I hope is emphasized by my use of italic underlings is the expectation the artist is placing on the viewer to read the series as opposed to interpreting the visual images the series contains. This, I believe, prompts us to consider whether images can be read like text. Also how might one comprehend the series use of paper, in gowns, which
in form still retains "text" upon its surface.

In the artist statement quoted above, Jean-Louis ‘suggest[s] that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors.’ I will admit that I am a little disappointed with this statement as it in my opinion contradicts the intention somewhat of the series title. Yes, we can not change events that have already happend but surely by 'rewriting history', as is the series' aim, will change not only how we understand the past but how we ultimately relate to it in the present tense. Thus prompting the question of whether such a feat is possible and how might the series do this? Also, how does one ‘activate’ the past? Is in doing so not calling the past into the present and how might this disrupt our understanding of history and its relationship to the present?

                      ‘Madame Leroy’
'Rest in Peace'
“When I decided I wanted to do something called ‘rewriting history,’ I thought, I can’t afford to make these gowns out of fabric. But I don’t have to follow the rules, so it should be something else. And I thought, rewriting history? … It should be paper!” Fabiola Jean-Louis
Many of the questions raised bare semblance to that discussed in my media studies classes of concepts concerning power/knowledge, space & time, and the archive. Which in part is why I am so drawn to Jean-Louis' work as there are so many ways and levels to which her series can and should be read -another interplay on words - and genuinely believe Jean-Louis' work should not simply be just looked upon! I will admit that the idea for this post stems for an actual paper I clumsily wrote for a class last year. And thus will engage with some of the points raised in that paper. Though, note that this post's analysis will not to provide a visual analysis of the individual works of art or critique the gowns but instead attempt to offer an understanding of the richness of the series in its entirety.
Fabiola Jean-Louis is not the first artist to use paper in replacement for fabric nor to create wearable garments out of it. Though, that should not detract from the significance of its usage in the series. As impractical as paper may seem for a garment, ironically it is the first "garment" made in the early stages of garment making. The (paper) patterns or blocks are essential to the garment construction process. It acts not only as the blue print for the garment's construction but is also marked in ways that acts as instructions during making, it also encapsulates the contours of the body, provides balance, and will have factored in the desired drape, style, and shape of the garment intended. I realise that those who don't share my background or interest in garment making might not appreciate this point half as much but in a sense Jean-Louis is making a garment out of the very thing that makes the garment!

'They'll Say We Enjoyed it'

Also, I feel like to talk of paper requires a discussion (if only briefly) of French philosopher Jacques Derrida's book, Paper Machine, on the subject. Why? Because no one else I have read has expressed so magificantly the significance and magnitude of the medium quite like him. Derrida encourages us to consider paper as not simply an inactive or passive surface to which markings upon it are forced but instead to recognise the significant role paper plays in the existence of man in its ability to contain his thoughts on its surface. Think books, scrolls, memo's, post it notes, or even this blog - virtual paper that also mimics our relationship to paper, e.i you are currently on a page of my blog! - It is this that makes the usages of paper, within our society, significant since it not only defines our present but contains our past. Thus Derrida propells us to see paper as the underlining thing of human existence, our material essence, the body which preserves our "soul". This becomes more relatable when we consider the relationship between paper and the archive and how there are a ton of institutions dedicated to the collecting and preserving of paper - libraries being one example. And this is what I see Jean-Louis' work tapping into. She is documenting and re-imaging the black body left out of history and out of its achieves. Thus, she is not just creating in paper she is creating paper to which will fill a void in the archive.

If then we begin to think of the archive, as the keeper of history, and of history itself we must be reminded that it is overly concerned with establishing "unities, totalities, series, relations" within the content of the document (that being paper). Which is to say that history is commonly understood as working in a linear fashion where events can be charted on a straight line between point A and B. And thus allows the document to be inaugurated in this divisional order that periodizes and chronologises events in time. But there are gaps in how we understand history. Missing histories, hidden histories, forgotten histories or just outrightly neglected histories which no one cared to or were powerless to archive. And again, this is what I see Jean-Louis' work is addressing, the absent images and narratives of people of colour in 17th and 18th century art archives and filling it with possiblities. 

This, I believe, leads us to see the possiblities that Jean-Louis' work is doing just what the artwork's title intends it to do, rewrite history. How I see the series doing this is very much rooted in how the artworks challenge our sense of temporality. But also, and more specifically, the temporality of the archive and our relationship to it. What is meant by this is that the Rewriting History series, by Jean-Louis, exposes us to the inconsistancies, ruptures, gaps in the archive and attempts to fill this void by imagining the possiblities of black existance in this period. And as both the gowns and the photography Jean-Louis creates requires the use of paper we can read this as becoming the document(s) absent from the archive. It is this idea that Jean-Louis' work is rooting itself in the past instead of the present becomes most evident when we think about its replication of 17th and 18th century style portrait paintings. As what this does is forces the series to be understood in the context of the past for the purpose of disrupting how we in the present understand ourselves by way of our understanding of history.


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