British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner has unveiled her first major curatorial endeavor: “Spirit Movers" in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art exhibition features nearly 40 works spanning the 1930s to the early aughts from the museum’s collection that are loosely tied together by the theme of music in the African diaspora and beyond.
Much like a composition itself, there are variations on the theme across her selections. On view are photographs of musicians, such as a 1962 portrait of the American classical musician Benjamin Patterson in performance at West Germany’s Kleines Sommerfest and Ruth Bernhard’s Hall Johnson Conducting His Negro Choir, 1938, which captures the hands of the acclaimed Black American composer in action. There are also works on paper that play on the idea of sheet music—like Fluxus composer Mieko Shiomi’s < wind music >, 1963, an ink-on-paper concrete poem with instructions to find musical chords in the natural noise of the wind. Then there are abstract riffs on the appearance of musical scores and, by extension, the rhythms they convey; such as Brazilian painter Hélio Oiticica’s Metaesquema No. 179, 1956. The word metaesquema rough translates to “meta-structure,” which spins off of the artist’s signature geometric minimalist aesthetic as red and white shapes leap and dive across a faint, grid-like arrangement of interlinking lines. Other sculptures offer more literal references, including Man Ray’s Emak Bakia, 1962, which consists of the top of a cello and horsehair as its non-functioning strings.
The curator herself has said Terry Adkins’ monumental Last Trumpet, 1995, was “key to the show.” The work depicts elongated brass and sousaphone horns. “I’ve been told that he meditated with a lot of his pieces, and I think you can feel his presence in them,” Wales Bonner explained, adding that it has a “spiritual quality.” In her essay for the book that accompanies the exhibition, the designer writes: “Beyond the immaculate individual expression, I hear an enthralling symphony. It is a call to leap into this wider consciousness. To constellate here is to be part of something complete and yet unfolding in the moment.” As an avant-garde fashion designer whose craft has drawn comparisons to the more erudite conceptual thinking that drives modern and contemporary art, it would certainly seem that Wales Bonner herself is a core part of cultural narratives playing out here and now.
“Spirit Movers” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art at 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019 through April 7, 2024.
Rachel Summer Small is Family Style’s Culture Editor and a writer and critic based in New York.