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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

What a Fashion Exhibition Taught Seventh Graders About Apartheid and Identity

This week’s post is written by Rick Taylor, a seventh grade humanities teacher at Rivers.

Before spring break, the seventh grade humanities classes studied the system of apartheid in South Africa and the various ways in which disenfranchised populations and their allies resisted its repressive policies. Students were also introduced to the ambitious agenda of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the more recent call by university students in Cape Town, South Africa, and Oxford, England, to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes from their campuses.

As we approached the present, students began to wonder about the legacy of apartheid and its imperial foundations: To what extent has South Africa been able to rectify past inequities? In what ways is the past still present?

As luck would have it, the exhibition “Made Visible: Contemporary South African Fashion and Identity” opened at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in February. Featuring artists and designers seeking (as the show’s introductory text put it) to “reveal the lingering damage of the past and make visible icons of a just future,” the exhibition promised to provide our students with a critical perspective on progress post-apartheid.

There was no way we could pass up what seemed such a strong, if serendipitous, opportunity to connect to the content of our curriculum. Moreover, the exhibition would allow for the students to continue the identity work they’ve engaged in all year in multiple classes. (See Melissa Dolan’s recent post, “Adolescence and Identity Development: Designing Curriculum that Meets Students Where They Are.”)

In the lesson leading up to our March 29 visit to the MFA, students reflected on the choices they make when they get dressed in the morning or go clothes shopping. What image do they seek to create? What do they want their clothes to reveal about their identities? To some students, the idea that the clothes they wear can be used to project an image was new. They found the fact that they could have a choice in the matter empowering. Others leaned into the potential discomfort of disclosing their rationale for wearing articles of clothing typically associated with another gender or items with loud prints or muted tones.

We then examined a series of photographs, which included Brady and Gronk, prisoners, women’s march participants, and Oscar attendees, among others. We debated whether the clothes the individuals were wearing sought to create an identity, erase an identity, or challenge a social norm. Several students concluded that clothes that challenge a social norm seemingly often seek to create a collective identity as well. I encouraged these students to test out this hypothesis at the museum the next day.

At the museum, students paid careful attention not only to individual works of art but also to the exhibition as a whole. Students were asked to notice the lighting, colors, and selection and arrangement of art and to consider the effect these choices had on their experience. They also mapped their movement through the gallery, making note of where they traveled and to what they were drawn.

In this way, students treated the exhibition space as a three-dimensional text. Edited by the curator with contributions by individual artists, the exhibition is part choose-your-own-adventure, part reportage, part editorial. Seeing the exhibition as a text opens it up to the same host of questions we encourage students to ask of the stories they read and the news they consume in their humanities and media literacy classes: Who is telling the story? In what way? With what effect? Why? What perspectives are missing?

Seeing the exhibition as a text also means that it is irreproducible—that is, we needed to leave the classroom and see it for ourselves. With the exhibition closing in a little over a month, it would appear that this year’s opportunity is next year’s conundrum. But the more I think about it, I wonder if the question isn’t “What will we do when the text disappears?” but rather “What story of apartheid will the students tell as curators of their own exhibitions?”

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