Grace Wales Bonner Talks American Influence, MoMA Exhibition

Given the years of research that Grace Wales Bonner has put into MoMA’s “Spirit Movers,” the designer could fully exhale a bit Thursday morning at its press preview.

Having spent more time in the Midtown museum in the lead-up to the opening and for the installation, she said, “It’s nice to be at a point where you step back and the work can breathe in a big space. And it has its own life. It feels good to be able to let go almost.”

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Standing in the cavernous first-floor gallery, Wales Bonner noted how seeing the materiality of the work is very powerful, especially in seeing the life that it brings or noticing how items have aged or had previous lives. “That’s interesting. That’s not something that you can get a sense for online.” Wales Bonner said.

Part of the “Artist’s Choice” series, “Grace Wales Bonner: Spirit Movers” features 50 artworks from the permanent collection that she helped organize. It opens to the public Saturday and will be on view through April 7. The show encompasses Black cultural and aesthetic practices inspired by the styles, experiences, forms and sounds of the African diaspora. It includes works by Terry Adkins, Moustapha Dimé, Agnes Martin, Man Ray, Betye Saar and David Hammons.

The project is another example of how major museums are using well-known designers and consumers’ interest in fashion to build their audiences. In addition to her namesake label, Wales Bonner collaborates with Adidas Originals. Although her designer status alone will prompt many fans to visit MoMA, Wales Bonner hopes the exhibition “will show a deeper background to show that beyond the output of fashion, what might guide a thought process. Coming to the exhibition is also a deeper experience. You can be here longer than experiencing one of my shows, which would be maybe 10 minutes. It gives people something different,” she said.

The London-based creative has been coming to New York quite regularly over the past year or so. Aside from feeling “very lucky” to keep up with all of MoMA’s exhibitions, changing and activity, she has been “quite inspired by American style. That’s probably going to be more translated into the [next] collection [that will be shown in Paris in January],” citing an interest in “icons” of the U.S. wardrobe including the intellectual and collegiate style that she tends to come back to.

The shows themes are fundamental to how she thinks as a designer and a researcher, as well as more timeless versus seasonal. “But I’m sure this thought process will be more embedded in what I’m doing [with fashion],” she said.

Her aim is to show how different elements can go into creating something, and to highlight how these pieces can also exist in isolation. “Hopefully, that can show some of the creative process and that can be interesting to people in some way,” Wales Bonner said.

Interested in giving people different access points through other literary and cultural references, the designer said that approach offers “a way to dig deeper,  if that is of interest — without pushing too much onto people,” she said.

As for whether the fashion industry is doing a better job with diversity, Wales Bonner said there have been some improvements, “and a lot more that could change. But there is some movement and some steps forward [are being made.] I have friends and peers that have important positions in fashion. For me, that feels like meaningful progress,” she said.

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