In October 2022, the Fashion for Good Museum in Amsterdam opened its current exhibition Knowing Cotton Otherwise. With cotton being a very layered and multifaceted subject, the curators decided to reflect the ongoing conversation through an exhibition that evolves and therefore comes in three phases. In February of this year, the museum opened its doors for us to explore the second phase, titled Bodies of Work, with added installations referring to both human and non-human entities.
One of these new installations is titled Curative, Confronting and Healing the Fashion-Industrial Complex by Sha’Mira Covington. The word curative in the title refers to Sha’Mira curating objects that intersect with her life and the idea of curative in that it “allows some thinking about the process of healing as it relates to cotton in the fashion-industrial complex,” says Sha’Mira. Next to that, she finds that the term fashion industry is “not an adequate term” implying modernization and wealth, “which is not true if we think about the men and women who are non-western and white.” Instead, depending on the context, she prefers the term ”fashion-industrial complex” to include the social and political systems that work through and for the fashion industry. She explains, “If you’re familiar with the concept of the prison-industrial complex and how there are all of these layered and overarching systems that work to and for a for-profit system of prison labor, that’s how I see the fashion industry.”
The PHD candidate at the University of Georgia, who works around Black embodiment in particular Black womens femme practices says, “Within my work I look at how Black femmes have historically used their bodies to visualise or to aestheticise the project for liberation.” She adds, ”As far as who I am personally, which informs a lot of my work, I am a descendant of enslaved people in the US and a descendant of conjurers and herbalists, Black and indigenous native Americans, I am a yogi, a pole dancer and I consider myself a liberationist.”
In the installation, she starts her point of reference with slavery and explains that “enslaved people, as history tells it, were the first arbiters of cotton and caring for the land” followed by cotton making “the headway for the western fashion industry.” The installation looks at forced labor, exploitation and violence that still exists and has been complicit in the fashion-industrial complex. With these histories being traumatising Sha’Mira says that she tries to create something healing and “meditative that you can attempt to transcend from.” She says that people wonder what the connection between healing and fashion is, but for Sha’Mira what we put on our bodies is very intimate. Therefore she sees clothing and dressing our body as the perfect conduit for healing, which to her can never be a linear process. She explains, “There wasn’t one trauma and then you end at healing” and adds that “it is a western construct that you can be hurt and then you’re all better, but that’s not how it works.” This idea is also visible while moving through the space of the installation as it has a non-linear design, which for instance doesn’t start with the historical garments.
Through the use of objects that are all in second or third life, Sha’Mira talks about aiming to offer “alternative” histories from the mainstream and “violent histories that were often told about Black and other diasporic peoples experiences in the fashion-industrial complex, cause although they’re there, there are also other stories that should be told.” This approach is also important to her from a collective standpoint, offering different entry points for Black and other diaspora people. She mentions that it is part of her way of healing in a discipline and industry that wasn’t made for someone like her to be operating and thriving in. She follows up by saying, “I think that we can’t move forward without collective healing and understanding. For such a long time western culture has been way too individualistic.”
Since the project for liberation is not possible without collective work, Sha’Mira finds it important to include various stories and narratives to highlight our interconnected realities and how those impact each other. She says that “we’re collective not only on a human level but also on an environmental level and a spiritual level” and explains how all of those aspects are “central to actually living a sustainable future.” Touching on sustainability, she mentions how its contemporary form is “entrenched in capitalism and commodity,” which, in her opinion, is the opposite of what it should be. As she focuses on preserving and enriching culture, in particular Black women’s experiences in the fashion industrial complex, she thinks of sustainability rather peripherally. She adds that at the same time, it inevitably becomes an integral factor in her practice based on the intersections she works in.
In the end, she says, ”I love that I can do work that I feel good about and that represents my culture and my spirit, especially as it relates to healing the legacy of my ancestors.” As we all have different relationships and connotations to objects, Sha’Mira’s wish for the people visiting the museum is to lean into those differences and leave with a “perspective that is theirs but also bigger than theirs.”