A conversation with Gagosian director Antwaun Sargent at Frieze London 2021 unpacking his exhibition exploring the dimensions of space within the context of the African diaspora.
by Haidee Findlay-Levin & Magda Kmiecik
The following text is an intimate narration by the fashion stylist Haidee Findlay-Levin, exploring objects from her personal collection as photographed by Madga Kmiecik during lockdown in New York City this summer.
“From a very young age I was drawn to Japanese aesthetics and eventually the philosophy of wabi-sabi; a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’ in nature. The cracks in a bowl, the scuffs on a pair of shoes, the creases and discolouration of leather or often-used tissue paper all have inherent beauty. For this reason, I find them impossible to discard.
Although I have always been enamoured by the discipline of minimalism – a room with few distractions, a single accent or gesture, and a perfectly elegant utilitarian uniform to wear – I struggle against my inherited hoarder tendencies and a sentimental inability to discard both beautiful and imperfect things; each imbued with a memory of time and place. Since the pandemic and its subsequent lockdown, sentimental objects and their imperfections took on a whole other meaning. Not only my own but those of my parents.
I tragically lost both of them – just 11 days apart – to this very pandemic that reached them hundreds of thousands of miles away. While forced to confront such an enormous loss; their home of 50-odd years filled with worn and imperfect possessions, became all the more significant and beautiful in memory.
My father turned out to be the more sentimental of the two. He saved boxes of photos, newspaper clippings that dated back to the first heart transplant and the release of Nelson Mandela. Journals, receipts and travel paraphernalia from journeys dating back to his time as a medical student in the 50s and their early married life abroad. His handwritten notes left on the backs of brochures and art catalogues filled a house not only with paper, but soul, and became impossible to discard.
My mother made all her own clothes. Then altered, updated and remade them to suit new occasions and events in their lives. As time passed, she patched and darned them, her life story stitched into every sleeve or knee crease. And when they became too threadbare to wear, she held onto their precious buttons or the creased Vogue pattern pieces that she adapted again and again.
On examining the archive of my own possessions, I realized that my behaviour was not all that different from theirs. I had a similar love of books, photos and papers as my father and that of textiles, clothes, shoes and bags like my mother. The way I stored and saved things was not that different either; be they designer and vintage clothes or less valuable items kept for their faded beauty, the memories they evoked and or simply humour. Each of them was lovingly wrapped in old tissue or plastic as if their impermanence and imperfections could be preserved and saved along with their soul.
I approached Magda [Kmiecik] to photograph some of these random things, some of which I have been collecting for years. We both have a fascination with packaging and its photogenic appeal.
When I unwrapped each item we chose to photograph them as such – some of them in the original way I have preserved them and others in packaging I had preserved for its own charm and beauty. It was the relationship of the item – no matter how old or worn – to its paper or box that piqued our subsequent interest.”
“The nude leather shoes above are from the Maison Martin Margiela SS 2009 season, the final collection of Martin Margiela himself. The shoes are actually unworn! As a design feature, they are intentionally scuffed at the toes, the heels peeling up and the elastic looks as if it has been ripped out from the pump. All intentionally so, and with a bit of the ‘MMM’ irony. I love these old vintage shoe-lasts I use to keep them in shape.
The bag (at right) is a vintage ‘cow’ skin with a classic spring lock. It has no brand name at all, but it’s very elegant. I loved the purity of its rectangular shape and the shade and markings of the skin. I have a huge archive of handbags mostly collected for design inspiration used for brands I consult with. I would love to eventually produce my own collection, so I have hung onto some favourites. Each one is stored in a plastic shoe bag for easy reference and then stored in archive bins.”
“This dark nude or ‘American Tan’ bathing suit was designed by A Detacher, a New York-based designer that was a cult favourite to artistic and intelligent New York women. There was a standalone store in Nolita which she closed last year, after 20 years in business. I worked on her shows and the collection for 18 of those years! I love the design of the bathing suit, especially the rushing down the sides. It looks retro but is actually a modern piece, only a few seasons old. It was wrapped and stored in nude tissue from the store. On the floor in a small ziplock is a vintage Bakelite necklace that I bought at the NY flea market when it still existed in the garage on W25th. I bought it shortly after Sept 11th. Everyone was in a panic and selling off their things. It felt like it was the end of the world. I felt tremendously guilty to buy something as frivolous as that at the time. I was obsessed with 20’s and 30’s Bakelite, collecting mostly bangles, but I was really drawn to this piece. She was happy for me to have it for that reason.
The long grey kid leather gloves are by Marc Jacobs. I keep them wrapped in acid-free yellow tissue in a long glove box. They are so soft and precious that I couldn’t bring myself to wear them in NY as it’s so dirty. I have a short-sleeved Yohji pea coat that I imagined wearing them with. They may have been worn by a model at some point, but that’s about it.”
“I am a big book collector – art books mostly. But I had a phase of collecting these pulp romantic novels, mostly for the covers and their fantastic titles. This one sits on my desk actually!
Says a lot.
It’s lying on a sheet of tissue from Raf Simons’ collection for Calvin Klein. It has a beautiful campaign photo on it. I thought the colour and print were both beautiful and I couldn’t bare to throw it away. Somehow Raf’s promise to really change Calvin Klein was cut short, it was ‘unfulfilled’…I guess it’s a nod to that…. and a hint at my humour.
The tan vintage handbag is an inexpensive find from a Harlem vintage store. The label says: ‘This is a Naturalizer’ handbag – not particularly chic – yet it looks like an old Céline bag by Phoebe Philo. Quite likely the reason I bought it. The smoked plastic bag makes it look more mysterious and glamorous than it is – Fashion is all illusion!”
“These vintage gold gloves were likely found at a flea market with a photoshoot in mind, but they are a really lovely shade of old yellow/gold. I love the bent fingers pressed flat under players of other gloves. I love this imperfection and how it rests on a bed of nude tissue that came from the box of Miu Miu shoes.
The mustard snake square toe pumps are by Bottega Veneta. They are new and unworn.I haven’t gone out in months, nor had an opportunity to wear them. I really love how Bottega is looking now, so I just had to have them! They are actually stored in their original box, but we shot them in plastic with this wild grass that’s been dyed pink. They look like a rare exotic animal!”
“This one speaks to memory, nostalgia and my longing for my home, Africa. It’s pure wabi-sabi. The items are not valuable but most precious. The plastic dolls I found each on separate trips home to South Africa. The pink one is a girl, cuddles a rabbit while the green one is an African boy, standing proudly cradling a soccer ball. They are both sun-faded from time standing on my windowsill. They remind me of my youth there. The painted ‘Coca Cola’ bottle is African and hand-carved from wood. The yellow mesh bag usually found in the fruit market, adds to the illusion of its authenticity.
The green silk satin bra, part of a matching set, was designed by a friend and former model who I worked with many years ago. The brand was called PassionBait and she made exquisite lingerie that was both retro and sexy simultaneously. I love how it has collapsed in the absence of the figure. The imagination is often far more sexy and the memory more evocative.”
“The soft nude suede shoes (above left) are by Miu Miu. I love the pale colour and texture against the architectural strength of the shoe’s silhouette. The box is like a miniature version of the old Miu Miu store – baroque gold wallpaper and soft pink carpet. One should never underestimate the desirability of great packaging.
On the right, The mini leather disco bag in the ziplock is another favourite by A Detacher. It’s small enough for a credit card and a key. I used to be able to fit my phone in it, but now iPhones are so much bigger they wouldn’t fit. That might make for a better night out – phone free – so unheard of now! We shot it with this special edition room fragrance box by Frédéric Malle. The typography is so cool as is the bottle inside. It’s grey opaque plastic and looks like a Windex bottle.”
Entitled Rhapsody In The Street, A#22 responds to the tradition of Black poetry, literature and portrait photography of the 20th century, featuring a curation of archival portfolios and other historical ephemera, as well as newly commissioned essays, poems, paintings and portraits.
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