ib kamara’s soft criminal exhibition is a tribute to creative africa
The i-D Fashion Editor at Large talks us through his exhibition at Red Hook Labs, Brooklyn.
Manhattan may be the centre of New York Fashion Week, but Brooklyn is increasingly becoming a peripheral fashion hub. It’s a place for new blood to exhibit their ideas; the creatives with less budget, but more youth and ingenuity.
It was here that three visionaries landed this week with the city’s hottest new exhibition. i-D’s Fashion Editor at Large Ib Kamara, designer Gareth Wrighton from London and photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman from Johannesburg arrived to present Soft Criminal at Red Hooks Lab -- an invocation of African creativity, a display of their powerful imaginations and a surreal, cinematic fashion landscape.
Ib and Gareth go way back, having studied together at Central Saint Martins. Ib and Kristin, meanwhile, linked up a while ago via Instagram and have since collaborated on a number of ambitious projects, most recently a powerful fashion editorial shot in South Africa for i-D’s Fall issue. Such is the strength of their creative partnership, the trio have had work exhibited at MoMA and collaborated on 2017's Coachie zine, made exclusively for the Tate.
Soft Criminal is clearly the work of a threesome who innately understand one another. It’s a body of work that redefines our perception of fashion, what it could stand for, how it could be interpreted and analysed; a creative symbiosis between a stylist, designer and photographer, as well as between an image and garment.
“We learned how to be brutally honest with each other,” Ib says of their working relationship and the process that led to the exhibition. “We’ve got no time for things that aren't good enough! We really pushed ourselves. We questioned our taste too. If we didn’t agree on something, we would move away from it to think things through, then look back at it and find a common ground. We’re very honest and never take things personally.”
The show features photographs taken around Johannesburg, where the garments were created and the whole thing was produced. The work defies easy description. It might be rooted in Africa, rooted in fashion photography, but it explores the small niches in between. Against a backdrop of New York City, the images take on a new dimension. “We’re from London so we could have easily shown it in London,” Ibrahim explains. “New York is a good challenge. There aren’t many young British creatives presenting artwork out here on this scale. For us it’s a different zone. If anything, the odds are against us. We made it hard for ourselves, but we thought, ‘How can we put on a show that would get people to visit and get them talking?’”
What's so impressive about Soft Criminal is the breadth and depth of the project. It's not just photography and styling, it’s design and garment making too. “We worked with Chris, a Congolese tailor in Jo’burg who shares his space with a hair salon. He was simply the best.” The clothes featured are transformative, strange and beguiling. Take, for example, a pair of bejewelled Taleguillas, the trousers from a traditional bullfighters’ uniform. Soft Criminal, as the title implies, warps conventions around masculinity and femininity. The resulting images are theatrical and fantastical and feel breathtakingly new.
At first, the group's unconventional ideas about men’s fashion worried their tailor. “We sat down with him, with all of our sketches, and he didn’t understand what we were doing. He would ask us why we wanted to put boys in corseted garments,” Ib says. But Chris quickly added his own expertise, advising on fabrics and techniques. “He solved all of our problems, he really was our go-to guy.”
Soft Criminal takes inspiration from movies, art, politics and the world around us. Some of the characters in the exhibition hold firearms, broaching a sensitive topic considering that gun violence is an everyday reality for many. “Yes, there are guns in the photos. But we don’t think we’re promoting gun violence. It’s an artistic decision. If the public can go and watch a Tarantino movie, they should be able to take this show.” Indeed, guns are not glamour, and these images reflect reality while addressing the economic and social disparities of the world.
Across the whole project, Ib, Gareth and Kristin-Lee have just one regret: not being able to fly one of their muses to the United States. “We wanted to bring one of our South African models, our fit model actually, over for the show but couldn't because of visa issues. They made it so hard for us.” Cultural endeavours should never be stopped by governments. It’s infuriating to see that, even today, artistic projects can be halted this way. “It really made us think about the unfairness of the world too. The west can go to Africa, but Africa cannot come to the west. Especially because we went there to do whatever we wanted, creatively speaking. We were welcomed!”
Soft Criminal is, ultimately, a lot more than an exhibition. It’s the trio’s vision at its purest. “It’s not to be taken too seriously. It’s fun! We’re playing with these ideas and having the time of our lives.” It’s the result of an uncompromised creativity — one that is still raw. “It’s really like a series of movie stills for us. All these characters have meaning for us in the world we live in.” It’s their manifesto; a piece of cinematic fashion surrealism that took a year and a half to make. Will there be a sequel? "We’re not going to let external pressure, or people’s demand for another body of work make us do it. When we are ready to show something else, we will. In the meantime, we might go do projects separately, but we’re constantly going to support each other.
“It’s that CSM training... once you’ve done it, you move on! Don’t bore people with the same stuff, it’s boring! Keep it moving.”
Soft Criminal runs until 23 September 2018 at Red Hook Labs, Brooklyn, NY.