11 September – 1 December 2019
Curated by Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien
Jae Jarrell made her first Revolutionary Suit in 1969. Constructed of grey tweed, the suit featured a bright yellow suede bandolier stitched along the edge of the jacket. Running from shoulder to hip, the slots of the bandolier are filled with either brightly coloured wooden pegs or pastels: ammunition for creation or for revolution. As Jarrell noted in an article in Jet Magazine in 1971, the bandolier was not simply a fashion accessory: “We were saying something when we used the belts. We’re involved in a real revolution.” From the beginning of her practice, Jarrell merged art and design with Black liberation politics. A part of the Toronto Biennial of Art, this exhibition gathers together sculptures, original designs and archival material spanning nearly fifty years of Jarrell’s radical practice. Jarrell began working professionally in the early 1960s on Chicago’s South Side, creating designs that deliberately disrupted the boundaries between fashion and sculpture. She debuted her first collection in the spring of 1963, opening her first retail store the next year. Her store—Jae of Hyde Park—was a means of self-determination: “You call your shots in business. You set the tone.” By the late 1960s, her practice was directly responding to the activism of the era and aligned with the Black Arts Movement and, in 1968, Jarrell together with her husband Wadsworth Jarrell, Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, founded AFRICOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). The influential collective came together in response to “a lack of positive representation of African American people in media and the arts,” with a goal to “develop a uniquely Black aesthetic that conveyed the pride and power of their communities.”
Working between art, design, and political organizing, Jarrell’s garments are often exhibited first as sculpture. An interest in structure underpins much of what she creates, and her work is inflected with symbols. Two ornamented freestanding screens include citations of earlier creations, including Brothers Surrounding Sis, a hand-painted dress that suggests the importance of supportive relationships between men and women. These symbols are communal as well as individual: “If you want individuality you have to use your own voice from beginning to end.”
– Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, Jae Jarrell was raised in a family steeped in the traditions of garment-making. Her grandfather was a tailor and her uncle a haberdasher. As a child, she learned from her mother how to make her own clothing. Shortly after moving to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Jarrell established herself as a rising star on the Chicago scene. Among the many important cultural institutions that have exhibited Jarrell’s ground-breaking work are the Smithsonian Institute, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Langston Hughes Center for Visual and Performing Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the National Center of Afro-American Artists.
Jae Jarrell is co-presented by the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) and the Toronto Biennial of Art. Works courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago