PHOTOS: Courtesy of 21c

Message Received! Thoughts on Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation

Review / Thoughts On 
Brianna Harlan

All too often, in Louisville’s big-small town complex, the same artists are showing in the same galleries. While they create work that is top quality, artists are often focused on mastering their own lane and not concerned with the city’s wider dialogue. This creates a series of interesting shows that do not engage each other, as well as a culture of artists who are continually looking to connect, but struggling to balance that desire with the pursuit of their own artistic goals–activities that shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. These silos do what silos typically do: place burden on the individual and create a pace that is sustained only by the curiosity and concern each artist is compelled to pursue, causing pockets of purpose and islands of intrigue. This makes it even more difficult to create a creative culture that the larger population can meaningfully join and interact with.

21c’s current exhibition Dress Up and Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation is especially important to the local art scene because it brings a larger conversation, bold and contemporary, to Louisville in a way that shows the power of diverse voices. These voices echo in the same rooms to challenge not only each other, but also the viewer. It is a celebration of art rising to the times, fearlessly standing in the truth of a myriad of styles and attitudes with an eagerness that's irresistible. This is seen in the first impression of the exhibition as you enter and are surrounded by Ebony G Patterson’s blinged-out and hyper-stimulating tapestries that are full of intricate testimony dipped in swag. From there follows enough work to cover two stories, several rooms, and as many visits as you can manage. The details are telling. Among the artists, 22 different nationalities are represented, stifled voices loudly reimagining and reasserting the way their stories are told. The content of the artwork is moving, provocative, and pressing. It is audacious and thorough in its authentic and nuanced representation of narratives, social issues, cultures, and history. From Kudzanai Chiurai’s photo visions of a past not dominated by the colonizer’s lens and a revolutionary future led by African women to Jody Paulsen’s vibrant introspection on fabric with Delicate Boy (2017). Not only does the work comment on the artists’ perception of what was and is, but on what could and should be. It is a show firmly rooted in the reality of now, with both feet on the ground, but flexing creatively, transcending stale imagery and ideas to open up topics that have been visited an innumerable amount of times, inciting deep emotion and new reflection–a superpower of art.

That power was felt during ReAction^2: Art, Activism, and Advocacy, an event co-hosted by the ACLU KY (American Civil Liberties Union, Kentucky). The speakers were comprised of artists, organizers, teachers, healers, students, and more and chose one artwork each to respond to, bringing a social issue to attention. Works such as Fahamu Pecou’s poetic Breathe (2015) evoked strong connections to speaker Keturah Herron’s youth work. Similarly, Wilmer Wilson IV’s Self-Portrait as a Model Citizen (2012) compelled Lorena Bonet Velazquez, a high school student, to educate the audience on the historical inequity of voting rights.

A strong theme of the night was the overwhelming and invaluable experience of seeing so many striking and unique representations of Blackness. Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Conversations about race are being increasingly brought forward with a steep learning curve. This exhibition event made space for the life, appreciation, celebration, and weight of Black experience in a rare and public way at an occasion that was not specifically sectioned off “for Black stuff.” This is seen throughout the exhibition for so many identities and realities; international stories find a platform here to educate and relate seamlessly to national and local ones. Explorations of immigration, voting rights, sexuality, environmental justice, effects of colonization, generation gaps, mental health, etc. all find sure footing in this show.

An art exhibition became an opportunity for the city to earnestly engage on the dynamics of society and place. The importance of these conversations and the opportunities to have these conversations cannot be lost. With this in mind, I invited other artists from a variety of personal and artistic backgrounds to weigh in, asking them the same question that was posed to me: what does Dress Up and Speak Up; Costume and Confrontation mean to an artist in Louisville, bringing crucial and national conversations to our community and artist community?

Francisco Xavier Cardona:
“Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation was at times uneasy, beautiful, and historical. The juxtaposition of materials and message plays throughout the show. The artists message and fragmented histories, can be lost if only viewed for its aesthetic imagery and composition. The pretty can distract from the point, which is not bad when the imagery is stunning and thought provoking.”

Kiah Celeste:
“There are sections of Louisville that are actively bringing attention to the beauty and struggle of the Black experience in America. Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation at 21c is a positive representation of Black lives as a retaliation of truth to the colonialist mindset who expects aggression and “savagery” to this day. The exhibition shows the bona fide elegance of Black culture and our loaded history with no shame, despite its often negative connotation of what most Americans were conditioned to believe into adulthood, subconsciously or not.

As a contemporary American artist of color, it is important to bring uncomfortable subjects to the forefront, proudly welcoming and staring the public in the face with them.”

John Brooks:
“Historically, it has been far too easy for a city like Louisville to be disconnected from national and international conversations in the art world. The presence of 21c, KMAC, Speed Art Museum, and Great Meadows Foundation in Louisville help to ensure that that is increasingly untrue.

Dress Up, Speak Up reminds us of the weight of the totality of our collective experience. There is value in highlighting the specific, as in Jeannette Ehlers’ piece, because the suffering of whole groups of people becomes visceral and personal rather than distant. It would be interesting to see an exhibition focused on the variations and complexities of identities of Louisville-based artists–if such an exhibition were to travel to another 21c Museum Hotel, I think viewers would be surprised by the diversity of our experiences and influences.

We do need to do a better job of fully integrating Louisville’s art community–not only within the public sphere but amongst ourselves. This is a goal of mine for 2019, both as an artist but also a gallerist and curator.”

A common thread ties our thoughts about the show together. We, as an art community, need to support and create shows like this–shows that bring light to issues and connections that need a platform, as well as a space for people to process them. As artists, we help bring intangible ideas and realities into a form that allows for greater understanding and reflection. Vinhay Keo, a Louisville artist now an MFA candidate at CalArts, is included in the show. He sums up our points with clarity, “to be an artist in the 21st century is to acknowledge the vastly complicated and globalized world we live in. Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation addresses this current state by examining historical and contemporary issues through the hybridity of cultures and identities. Change can come from the margins. Louisville is doing its part in that stride.”

I'd argue that change must, in due part, come from the margins. From the individual level to the global stage, only when we continuously respect, challenge, and adapt to the rapidly shifting world can we move forward with confidence in our stride and an ease in our conscious. The historically loud, most aggressive voice cannot be the sole decision maker. We needed an exhibition to uplift voices that have always had so much to gift us; these voices contribute to our politics, cultures, systems, and daily life but never get credit for the betterment they provide or the lessons they have to teach. I am proud and grateful that the stage is finally making room.

As you walk through Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation and witness the people represented in this work dressed for the resistance, determined to have their stories heard, what story will come to you? What voice, within and around, will call out? Louisville wants to hear it. Louisville needs to.


Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation is on display at 21c Museum Hotel through March 2019.

21c is located at 700 W Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202 and is always open.


Brianna Harlan
Guest Contributor to Ruckus


Delicate Boy (2017), Jody Paulsen.

Breathe (2015), Fahamu Pecou.

Self-Portrait as a Model Citizen (2012), Wilmer Wilson IV.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY