Avenir Museum reopens with exhibits on African wax prints, mannequins

Wandering Spirit exhibit

Photo by Avery Martin

The Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising, which was closed for 14 months due to the pandemic, has reopened for in-person visits and recently launched exhibits on African wax prints and mannequins.

The museum, which is part of Colorado State University’s Department of Design and Merchandising, is adhering to CSU public health protocols for guests.

“Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints” is a traveling exhibition on loan from the Mid-America Arts Alliance that focuses on wax prints that originated in Indonesia, were imitated by Dutch textile makers, and ultimately were marketed to African and other markets around the world. Gifty Afua Benson, a native of Ghana who curated the exhibit, provides written narratives about the various pieces in the exhibit, their history and how they were merchandised.

“It’s such a global story,” Avenir Assistant Curator and Collections Manager Megan Osborne says. “These works drew on inspiration from the Pacific Islands but were produced in Europe and sold in Africa.”

Wandering Spirit exhibit

Photo by Avery Martin

New names

Osborne notes that while the Dutch makers of the wax prints labeled their various designs with numbers, the African communities that bought them often came up with their own names for the patterns, based on African proverbs. One design had two names: “Cow Manure” and “Suzanne.”

The six-yard swaths of cloth, which were made into garments, include designs dating back to the early 1900s as well as contemporary patterns fashioned after former First Lady Michelle Obama’s shoes and handbag. Another design featuring purple heart shapes is titled “Heart of Barack.”

One of Osborne’s favorites, known as “Broom” or “Horsetail,” reminds her of Mickey Mouse’s broom in the Disney film Fantasia.

“It feels like it’s going to jump off the fabric and come to life,” she says.

"Michelle Obama's Bag"

“Michelle Obama’s Bag”

"Heart of Barack"

“Heart of Barack”

"Broom"

“Broom”

‘Where is Every Body?’

The mannequin exhibit was created by students in Avenir Curator Katie Knowles’ spring graduate course “Care and Exhibit of Museum Collections.” The title, “Where is Every Body? Mannequins and Mounts,” is both a commentary on the lack of diversity among mannequins as well as a nod to the pandemic that kept so many people at home.

“Originally, we weren’t going to do this exhibition until the fall, but my students pushed for it,” Knowles says, noting that each student took on a different responsibility for the project.

Students in Knowles’ class

• Brooklyn Benjamin
• Ollie Bode
• Alaina Franklin
• Cassie Franks
• Donghoon Shin
• Sarah Silvas-Bernstein
• Amy Jo Wininger

Mannequin exhibit

Photo by Avery Martin

They covered areas like labels, layout, graphic design, marketing/PR, programming and an interactive area where visitors can share their impressions on a chalkboard and mark their height against the silhouette of a mannequin, which is taller than average height.

The exhibit features various mannequins used over the years, including figures of women, men and children — and one that’s missing a leg. It spotlights the fact that historically, mannequins have not reflected the diversity of body types, abilities, races, gender identities and ages that actually wear the clothing on display.

“If we were going to do an exhibit on older women’s wear, for instance, we’d have to customize the mannequins,” Knowles explains. “The size range and proportions of mannequins’ bodies are still quite unrealistic. In the same way it is said that museums are not neutral, my students learned that mannequins are not neutral.”

New Threads exhibit

The “New Threads” exhibit includes a green evening dress from Greece, at right. Photo by Avery Martin

‘New Threads’

A third exhibit unveiled this month, “New Threads,” is a rotating installment of pieces from the Avenir’s permanent collection. It features an Aggie Haylofters dress donated by a member of the campus square dancing club that was popular from the 1940s through the 1970s, as well as two pieces from Greece: an apron and a green evening dress from donor Hara Evjen.

There is a James Galanos coat and skirt from the 1960s, a pair of Dolce & Gabbana “Tropico Italiano” shoes, and a black and gold Syrian ensemble donated by longtime Morgan Library employee Nora Copeland. “New Threads” also features a Frostline vest and gaiters owned and sewn by the late Jim Ingram, who had previously given the museum the World War II uniform he wore while serving in the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment. Frostline was a Colorado-based company that sold kits for assembling its outdoor gear, and one of the kits that Ingram bought is on display as well.

In a case near the museum’s entrance is the Orlando Dugi ensemble purchased from the Native American designer using proceeds raised during Dugi’s 2019 visit to his first-ever solo exhibition at the Avenir in 2019.

For hours, location, and contact information for planning your visit to the Avenir Museum, see the museum’s website.

The Avenir Museum is in the Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.