Lou Stoppard reports on the Wales Bonner show
Lots has been written about Wales Bonner, notably numerous gushing headlines about how she's reshaping ideas of black male identity and whatnot. She's not. She's doing what Hilton Als describes - creating and making with like minded people. Many of them walked in her show. Some of them stood at the sides watching. This isn't some theatrical vision of a male, it's built on authenticity, experiences and real lives.
It’s hard to review Grace Wales Bonner’s S/S 18 show. On arriving, we were handed a small printed booklet, not containing show notes full of easily explained inspirations and notes for press as many other designers offer, but select extracts and images from those who have inspired Wales Bonner. Think of it more like a thesis bibliography than a moodboard. One of the extracts came from critic Hilton Als, who just a month or so before Wales Bonner’s show won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. It was lifted from an essay from the catalogue for 2016 show, James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children, at the Artist’s Institute in New York. Reflecting on a collaboration with photographer Darryl Turner, he wrote, 'Making things together was a joy. And part of that joy was in the making, not the language about it. When some writers hovered around us with “meaning” - those boxing gloves in that vitrine are there because you're black, etc - we laughed. Nothing could spoil our pleasure, not even critics.'
One couldn't help but read into that. Lots has been written about Wales Bonner, notably numerous gushing headlines about how she's reshaping ideas of black male identity and whatnot. She's not. She's doing what Als describes - creating and making with like minded people. Many of them walked in her show. Some of them stood at the sides watching. This isn't some theatrical vision of a male, it's built on authenticity, experiences and real lives. That alone explains its appeal - it’s truthful, wrapped in history, rather than fantasy. There was another part of Al's text that stood out; 'We did not have a game plan, other than making things. Like when the actor Morgan Freeman said - bless him - that he didn't play black, he was black, our work incorporated all that we were; we didn't capitalize on our race or erotic history.'
Wales Bonner's work should be analysed with this in mind. There was a formality to this season’s show - the regal spirit that always runs through her work was still present, but it was caused by a certain stoicism and poise, rather than the usual visual opulence and dazzling embellishment that Bonner has favoured in the past. That had been stripped away, to allow for a focus on the cut and fit of her tailoring. It was about core, rather than surface. Photographs by Carl Van Vechten, a long-term inspiration of Wales Bonner's, depicting nude men were present in the booklet and on the clothes. The inclusion of the nakedness spoke volumes - here, Wales Bonner's focus was back on the body. On the man, perhaps more so than the clothes. That double focus is notable in understanding Bonner's work - the clothes don't work without the select male inside them.