North Carolina Museum of Art Presents: Ruth E. Carter Afrofuturism in Costume Design

Stunning headpiece and detailed regalia

On April 16, feature writers Emma and Madelyn attended the Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC. The installation included several notable pieces from Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter. The exhibition will be running until August 6. From Malcolm X to Black Panther, here is Emma and Madelyn’s take on the exhibition.

If you consider yourself an art lover, fashion fanatic, or movie enthusiast to any extent, the Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design will not disappoint. This cutting-edge exhibition juxtaposes fashion, cinematic costume design, art, and history to showcase the incredible life work of American costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1960, Carter began sketching from a young age and never looked back. According to one The Hollywood Reporter article, during her time at Hampton College, Carter actually became known as “the costume designer.” Bits and pieces from Carter’s childhood and early adulthood are featured in the exhibition, including her first foot-operated sewing machine.

Upon arrival, the exhibition invites the viewer into the space with an enticing, and rather domineering mannequin dressed in a bright yellow zoot-suit-inspired set with zebra and leopard trim. The subject’s platform shoes are fish bowls in the shape of heels—nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Just one step toward the gallery and the viewer is suddenly transcended into an afrofuturistic space. The mannequin stands atop a platform in front of a geometric primary-color wall. “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in costume design” fluorescently shines brightly next to the yellow-dressed mannequin.

Entrance to exhibit

Before taking another step into the world of Ruth E. Carter, it’s important to define Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a literary, musical, and artistic genre exploring a connection between science fiction and the African diaspora taking place in the future. 

"Afrofutur[ism] to me has more meaning to it than just African, hard science, Marvel, and superheroes. It really does speak to how you see culture moving forward into the future." —Ruth E. Carter

Carter’s creations explore the Afrofuturism genre, utilizing the past to inform the present and future, so, Carter’s iconic historical pieces like the designs in Malcolm X (1992) directed by Spike Lee and Selma (2014) are highlighted throughout the exhibition.

The Dr. Martin Luther  King Jr. and Coretta Scott King wardrobe on display exemplifies the immense historical research Carter’s designs undergo. In the 2014 film Selma, Carter accurately recreated Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s ensembles during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance. According to the exhibition wall label, “In the workshop mini gallery of this exhibition, Carter has loaned a wealth of sketches and ephemera to illustrate her in-depth historical research and design process for each project. In this collage, she combines her costume sketch for Martin Luther King Jr. with creatively placed vintage photographs of the Civil Rights leader.” 

As we entered the exhibition, the space opened to display the costumes from the 2018 film Black Panther. The costumes faced outward in a circle to face the approaching viewer. Each costume represents the art and design corresponding with traditional dress and practices in different African tribes. For example, Connie Chiume’s costume and wig when playing the Mining Tribe Elder in Black Panther was based on the Himba Tribe in Namibia, who achieve a deep red-orange color in their hair by applying shea butter and ochre to the strands to develop dreadlocks. The green hues and beadwork in Lupita Nyong’o’s costume for her role as Nakia was based on the people of Suri in southwestern Ethiopia with her puka-shell adorned harness symbolizing wealth. 

Two of the costumes Carter designed for Romonda, played by Angela Bassett; one from each of the Black Panther movies. Angela Basset’s iconic cream dress and headpiece from the original movie were among the costumes surrounding the T’challa Black Panther suit in the center, and being able to see it up close really hammered in just how detailed these costumes truly are.  The woven texture on the head and neck pieces, which were Zulu-inspired. The headpiece called an Escola, is a hat worn by Zulu/South African women to signify their marriage. 

Surrounded by the array of culturally-inspired pieces from the original movie, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa Black Panther costume stood proudly in the center, surrounded by the other Carter designs from the Marvel motion picture. Boseman passed away on August 28, 2020, after a lengthy fight with cancer. When Ruth E. Carter accepted her second Oscar, she asked Boseman “to look after” her late mother, who passed away mere weeks before her second acceptance. As all the costumes surrounded Boseman’s number in the center, it felt like a piece of him was there too.

Her meticulous work in Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever made her not only the first Black woman to win two Oscars but also the first person to win Oscars for both the original movie and the sequel in a series. Though the curation focused mainly on costume designs from throughout Ruth E. Carter’s career so far, a photograph print and an oil painting adorned the walls adjacent to the costumes. “Angela Bassett (a homage to Spike Lee), 2019” by LaToya Frazier was taken as a part of a collection designed to pay homage to Frazier’s favorite photographers. This specific photo aimed to explore the intersection of race, place, and family. On the other side of that wall, a Carter oil painting titled Child of Amistad hung beautifully. The painting depicted a scene from the 1997 film she designed the costumes for, which were also on display.  

In addition to a surprise oil painting, the final stretch of the exhibition includes several visual summaries of inspiration Carter created over the course of her career. These visual summaries, more commonly known in fashion as “mood boards,” offer insight into Carter’s creative process. The sketches, mind maps, and fabric pieces demonstrate that everything really does begin as an idea on paper, and what is incredible about this exhibition is experiencing the magic that happens when Ruth E. Carter’s ideas become realities.The exhibition closes in the best way possible for an icon like Ruth E. Carter—with a glass encasing of a dazzling neckpiece and a multi-chrome dress. The self-designed and 3D-printed headpiece and the dress were what she wore to accept her first Oscar for ‘Best Costume Design’ in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, making it the first time a Black woman won in the category. From Cuba to Wakanda, the exhibition beautifully captures Ruth E. Carter’s vision of Afrofuturism and how she has made history with her designs and awards. Afrofuturism is more than a movement; it is a vision, and her work in film for the past 30 years exemplifies these messages and elevates them to new heights. The exhibit takes the viewer throughout Carter’s career, and how craft became a crucial aspect in telling the stories of Black excellence in bold, beautiful detail—all while writing her own.

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