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Haitian artist uses fashion to probe power structures in ‘Rewriting History’ at Gardner Museum

Fabiola Jean-Louis stands in front of her exhibition “Rewriting History” at the IsabellaStewart Gardner Museum. PHOTO: ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

A dress is the centerpiece of Haitian American visual artist Fabiola Jean-Louis’ exhibition “Rewriting History” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, though the term hardly seems sufficient to describe this artwork. The electric blue gown is a careful balance of elegant ruffles and pleats, featuring the wide hip structure and low neck popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. But unlike those silk constructions, this sartorial masterpiece is made entirely out of paper.

Fabiola Jean-Louis, “Marie Antoinette is Dead,” 2017. Archival pigment print © Fabiola Jean-Louis. PHOTO: ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Jean-Louis uses intricate, delicate paper garments to question narratives around Black women and Black female bodies and to probe power structures. Dresses like the one on display were typically worn by white nobility. Jean-Louis photographs Black women wearing these at-once lavish and cage-like creations. In doing so, she reminds viewers that the wealth that supported the European nobility identified with these garments often came at the expense of Black lives. Her work at the same time exalts Black women to that same aristocratic position and aesthetic.

“There’s no other item, or material in our world — and not just American society, but in our world — that shapeshifts like paper,” says Jean-Louis. “It has in one instance tremendous power to build cities, governments, societies, wealth, poverty and suffering. It has the power to buy human bodies and has the power of serving as proof of existence.”

The material holds all of that power, but it’s also incredibly fragile. That juxtaposition of strength and weakness emulates the two sides of the clothing coin. Women can use clothing to create their own identities and express themselves, but garments can also be

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