Mark Coetzee, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), talks about the cultural significance of costume, why one collects costume, and why the Costume Institute is being created as part of the new museum in Cape Town.
Early humans might have employed skins and fur for warmth and protection, but for thousands of years clothing has not simply been used for protection from the elements. Civilizations have, through the ages, used clothing, jewelry, face and body painting, and body modification to express a myriad of different positions regarding morality, taboos, religious or class affiliations, wealth, national origins, aspirations, gender roles, and rebellion.
Understanding the history of costume allows us to comprehend the complex and deep history of humankind. We study costume to trace the similarities and differences of people, groups and nations. A costume institute acts as an archive of who we are, where we come from, and how our attitudes, morals, and values remain the same or change over time.
For too long, museums and the art world have differentiated between high art and the applied arts. Thankfully in the 21st century, we understand the extraordinary creativity and innovation that is happening in realms that would not have traditionally be seen as art. By collecting, preserving and exhibiting costume, museums use these artifacts as perfect examples and recorders of their time.
Museums, however, cannot only look to the past. They must also encourage us to confront the challenges and opportunities of the moment in time that we occupy. By helping us to understand the relevance and power of costume, we can make smarter, more educated, and more informed choices of how we want to use costume to express ourselves, how costume can liberate or suppress us, our impact on the environment through the fibres or materials we purchase, and our impact on workers and their human rights through which brands we support.
Costume began in Africa and then spread across the world as humanity migrated from its birthplace. Africa has extraordinary traditions of using costume to express our spiritual or religious traditions and affiliations, our allegiances to political parties, demonstrating our creative urges, making us seem more beautiful, enhancing our chances in finding a partner, identifying ourselves with certain cultural groups, expressing our positions on decadence or tradition, and our appropriation or rejection of aspects of costume from outside the continent.
The Costume Institute at Zeitz MOCAA takes as its mandate the responsibility to collect and preserve for future generations the extraordinary contemporary fashion arts to be found in Africa and its Diaspora and to use and exhibit the collection to educate and inspire. All costume designers originating from the continent, will be celebrated and exhibited. This institution has a mission to represent the diversity of creativity in Africa and its influence beyond our shores.
Africa has had huge influence globally. It is not a matter of comparing one designer with another, but rather understanding the cultural impact that costume design from Africa has had on the continent and beyond. The costume institute will also host exhibitions from around the world sharing them with local audiences. I hope that by being exposed to achievements from elsewhere, our designers will be better informed and challenged to push themselves further.
The Costume Institute Council, consisting of leaders in fashion, work to bring together funds for an endowment especially established to build the Costume Institute’s permanent collection. The Costume Institute is also the beneficiary of funds raised at the Annual Zeitz MOCAA Gala presented by Standard Bank Wealth and Investment. To guarantee the ongoing sustainability of the Costume Institute, the capital of the acquisition endowment is never touched, only the interest is used. This guarantees the Costume Institute will be able to fulfill its mission long into the future.
The Costume Institute is honoured to have received donations to its collections from various donors. These donations have come from the archives of designers themselves, from recent shows of young graduates, or from individuals who have seriously focused on building costume collections. An acquisition committee of leading practitioners, journalists and curators is in place that decides on all donations to ensure that only relevant, museum quality pieces, which demonstrate exceptional technical skill and cultural relevance, enter the permanent collection. Curators at Zeitz MOCAA also commission specific pieces by artists and designers for exhibitions and the permanent collection.
Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London have been exhibiting costume for over a half a century. Their exhibitions are hugely supported by millions of visitors each year and have captured the imagination and aspirations of many generations.
With increasing attention being focused on the creative industries in Africa, the Costume Institute at Zeitz MOCAA will position costume designers in Africa along with their peers internationally and guarantee their contribution is not only acknowledged but also celebrated.
By providing space within a museum for collecting, preserving, researching and exhibiting costume, we demonstrate a concrete respect and value for the importance costume plays in our everyday lives and how the industry of fashion not only develops financial wealth but also the cultural wealth and power it provides to each of us to define ourselves on our terms, according to our choices, to those around us.
In 2017 the Costume Institute at Zeitz MOCAA will have a permanent home, with dedicated galleries, hosting changing exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection and selected loans. By creating a permanent site for contemporary fashion, we will develop audiences through an ongoing dialogue with lovers of costume through lectures, workshops, guided tours, social events, fashion shows, publications, and children’s educational programming.
The V&A Waterfront in Cape Town is the most visited site in Africa with 25 million visitors annually. We believe our location will guarantee us ongoing visitor numbers. The Costume Institute’s responsibility will be to ensure the quality of visit, to be sure our visitors leave better informed, enriched and inspired.
To determine if fashion is a form or art, we need, first of all, to define, or attempt to define, art itself. If we take the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts—artworks, expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power,” then it seems to me that fashion as it operates in the 21st Century is obviously art.
The lines between art, fashion, music, and digital media have completely blurred. Hierarchies no longer seem relevant in a time when we participate in every aspect of how we present ourselves to the world: how we dress, our social media pages, slang and street culture, selfies etc. We accept that we are being constantly monitored—photographed by others without our knowledge—on CCTV and other mechanisms, or knowingly by our colleagues, friends and family, or by ourselves through selfies. With the knowledge that there is no possibility to exist anonymously, but that we are constantly performing—like it or not—for the camera, we use fashion, hairstyles, and makeup as a way to tailor our image to the outside world, and we use our decorated bodies to project a message that we wish to propagate. I am convinced that fashion now functions as living sculpture. Using fashion we create visual aspects of ourselves, we bring attention to things we find beautiful, our bodies, the colours and textures of the fabrics we cover ourselves with, the silhouettes and shapes we change our bodies into. We are living artifacts, using the technical skill of designers, make-up brands, tattooing salons, sunbeds, etc., to express our imaginations.
Mark Coetzee, Executive Director and Chief Curator.