Artist Derrick Adams Is Honoring Patrick Kelly’s Bold Creations

An exhibition of artist Derrick Adams’ multilayered collages and sculptural works, which were created in response to the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly’s work, recently opened at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, Georgia. Debuted during Black History Month, the exhibit is part of Savannah College of Art and Design’s deFINE ART 2020 program, an annual series of commissions, exhibitions, lectures, and performances organized by the university.


Adams decided to create a body of work in response to the designer’s humorous and racially-charged garments after spending time studying his archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Though the artist chose to embrace a less distinguished aspect of the designer’s work — the way Kelly employed formalism in his creations. “I thought, looking at the imagery he used, I was really more interested in the formal construction of his work than the overt racial politics in his work,” says Adams. In this way, he sought to highlight the conceptualism and movement inherent in Kelly’s designs, which he achieved by employing Kelly’s fabrics and colourful geometric forms in his collages. 


The exhibition features nine mixed-media collages, three mixed-media sculptures and a digital print wall mural all by the artist alongside Kelly’s photographs, personal letters, newspaper clippings, vintage clothing patterns, accessories, and fashion show invitations. Thanks to the generosity of Carol Martin, an Atlanta resident who was a model and close friend of Kelly, the museum was able to include Patrick Kelly garments in the exhibition. It is through the unification of these works that the exhibit forms a compelling conversation between two black male artists from two totally different time periods.


It was in the 1970s that Kelly, who moved to Atlanta from Mississippi after high school, began gaining recognition for his designs made from donated clothing at AmVets Thrift Store, where he worked until going to New York to pursue a career in fashion. With little success there Kelly took his designs to Paris, working for Paco Rabanne and later becoming the first American designer to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du prêt-à-porter, the distinguished governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry. 


Kelly was also known for his collection of black memorabilia that depicted racial stereotypes. According to a 2014 article on Dazed, “he handed out racist pickaninny dolls for white society ladies to pin to their lapels, designed a watermelon hat to be worn by a black model (the watermelon is an old symbol of racist iconography in the US – Kelly was reclaiming it) and the logo he splashed across his boutique bags was the cartoonish face of a golliwog, an image he was beginning to make his own.” Kelly passed away in 1990 from an AIDS-related illness.


Born in Baltimore and now based in New York, Adams is hailed for his multimedia work including collage, painting, sculpture, performance, video, and sound installations. With an interest in our attachments to objects, ideas, colors, and symbols the artist’s practice examines how one’s self-image is influenced by popular culture. He also seeks to question the intersection of African American experiences with American consumerism, iconography, and art history. 


By studying Kelly’s archive, Adams says he took out pieces of his life, which he compared to the designer’s journal, and elements from Kelly’s creative process that the artist felt were relevant to his own experience. Through Adams’ eyes, this meant seeing and honoring Kelly’s fashion as “physical culture” or abstract art worthy of exaltation. It is really no wonder the exhibition is titled “Patrick Kelly, The Journey” as one can easily notice the immense impact Adams’ journey through Kelly’s archive had on his own artistry.


The exhibition is open through July 19, 2020.

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