Image: © Awol Erizku
Afrofuturism, a term initially rooted in American-African science fiction, has evolved to include the exploration of African diaspora experience and history. The Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design exhibition at SCAD FASH explores both aspects of this theme through the prolific work of costume designer, Ruth E Carter. She herself defines Afrofuturism as “using technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous people to believe and create...” as quoted in the exhibit’s digital museum guide. Her substantial role in the visual storytelling of Black and African-American history and culture, and the intersection of such with technology has resulted in a captivating exhibit at SCAD FASH.
Image: Install view of Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design at SCAD FASH. All images © Ndirika Ekuma-Nkama unless otherwise stated.
Co-curated by Rafeal Gomes and Christina Frank in collaboration with Julia Long, the exhibition serves as a timely acknowledgement of the work of the celebrated costume designer. In 2019, Carter made history as the first Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for the blockbuster film Black Panther. The exhibit also features costumes from the Oscar-winning motion picture and includes thoughtfully placed motifs and artwork by Atlanta-based artist and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) alum, Brandon Sadler. Sadler’s murals appeared in the motion picture.
Black Panther embodies a rich example of Afrofuturism aesthetic as it fuses African culture, technology and visual fantasy. The plot centers on Wakanda, an advanced African utopian nation. Wakandan font is used throughout the exhibit as a visual reinforcement of its theme. Carter has described her body of work as “…an expression of Afrofuturism, using imagination and technology to create costumes that tell stories about our culture…” according to a displayed quote at the venue. One of the most impressive pieces in the exhibit are the 3D printed crown and shoulder mantle worn by Angela Bassett in her role as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther. These pieces were a result of Carter’s collaboration with Austrian designer Julia Koerner, and illustrate Carter’s openness to the implementation of new technology in design.
Her meticulous research and application of detailed elements from traditional African costume across multiple ethnicities and regions is a testament of her dedication to her craft. This was done in a responsible and respectful manner, with attentive attribution. Included are sketches created by and in collaboration with the disciplined and methodical costume designer. Carter’s knack for detail, research and the creative process, is by no means undermined. Notes, drawings, mood boards, photographs and fabric samples from a variety of projects were compiled to showcase her creative process. These also shed some light on the intricacies of her occupation, and its collaborative nature.
Carter’s career spans almost 40 years. During this time, she has been nominated for Academy Awards for her work in Amistad and Malcolm X in the same capacity as her 2019 win. The exhibit focuses on Carter’s visual contribution to the telling of stories relating to race and the resilience of Black people in film. Through her work, Carter has helped propel the Black experience into mainstream consciousness.
Featured in Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, are over 60 costumes that include ensembles from thought-provoking films like Selma and Amistad, and the recent miniseries, Roots. The exhibition afforded visitors the opportunity to see these garments up-close, and revealed the detail and precision involved in their execution. The historical and biographical nature of these and other showcased costumes unveil Carter’s diverse portfolio. Her body of work depicts multiple periods of history conveyed across varied film genres. Her ability to infuse unique visual elements with historical accuracy is also a distinct characteristic of Carter’s work. Her costumes have been used to embody prominent historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall; as well as popular cultural personas like Tina Turner, Rudy Ray Moore and the fictitious African regal, Akeem.
Carter began her film career working on Spike Lee’s School Daze. Since then she has collaborated with the Oscar-winning director on notable films such as Do the Right Thing, and Malcolm X. She has over 40 project credits that span television and film including motion pictures such as What’s Love Got To Do With It, Four Brothers and Marshall.
Her gradual road to fame and prominence in her field is echoed by the inclusion of her childhood sewing machine, a nod to her humble beginnings and influences. Although anchored by Afrofuturism, the exhibit is a celebration of an extensive and varied career. It also includes a film montage of costumes featured in the exhibit, and an interview with Carter in which she stresses the importance of preliminary research in her field and discusses her origins in theatre. Carter graduated with a Bachelors degree in Theatre Arts from Hampton University, a historically black university located in Hampton, Virginia. Eventually she moved to Los Angeles, California where she began work in theatre and would eventually begin her noteworthy film and television career in costume design.
Written by Ndirika Ekuma-Nkama
The Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design exhibition ran until September 2021 at SCAD FASH in Atlanta, Georgia. For more information visit scadfash.org.
Ndirika Ekuma-Nkama is an Assistant Professor of Fashion at Clark Atlanta University and illustrator specializing in fashion and accessories. In 2020 she was shortlisted for the FIDA international Fashion Illustration Drawing Awards. Her work has been exhibited nationally in the United States, where she currently resides.