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Finding Superheroes: School art project inspired by Black Panther costumes

Finding Superheroes – A collaboration between Jubilant! Youth Arts Festival, Food Museum, Aspire Black Suffolk and Black and White Creative.

Words and photos of art by Nikki Goldup.

26 July 2022


Through May and June 2022, Bury St Edmunds based artists Nikki Goldup and Keith Hopewell worked with a group of 8 students from Olive AP Academy in Stowmarket. The project formed part of the larger Jubilant! Youth Arts Festival which linked artists with schools and cultural centres throughout Stowmarket. The aim of the project was to engage young people with a wide range of arts practice and practitioners, working outside of the curriculum, using cultural centres as inspiration.

About the students

Olive AP Academy is one of several East Anglian and outer London based alternative provision

schools. This means that the students at Olive are those who have been excluded,

are at risk of being excluded, or have a medical condition that prevents them from attending mainstream school.

The group of 8 students we worked with were aged between 9 and 14 and selected by the school

staff as they had an interest in art making, costumes and Marvel / superhero culture. They had a

wide range of learning and personal needs which we took into account, supported by the teaching staff at the academy. Both Nikki and Keith had long term experience working with excluded young people within both school and museum settings, so they were familiar with the best ways to support the group and engage with them, designing positive, fun and confidence building sessions.

About the project

During the first session the group visited the Food Museum to have a special VIP viewing of the Black Panther costumes. At this point ‘Dining with Heroes’ wasn’t fully open. This was an engaging trip for the group, who rarely get to visit museums and other cultural venues. Elma Glasgow, of Aspire Black Suffolk, met with the group and gave them an fantastic talk about the film, the narratives behind the film and an insight into the touring exhibition and the work of Aspire. The young people were excited to see the museum, and most had seen the film Black Panther.

They were very knowledgeable when it came to Marvel characters and their associated books, comics and films. The characters and their costumes were of massive interest to everyone in the group. We talked a bit about the themes running through the film, their interpretations of this and the meanings but also the use of pattern, materials, colour and lettering forms in the costumes which were derived from more traditional African design. During informal discussion the group were sympathetic and understood the narrative that runs throughout the film: what it is to be black in Africa and America, but also globally. They also had massive respect for the women in the film, viewing them as equals, powerful and important characters within the story.

Over the next three weeks Nikki and Keith visited the school twice a week to have hourly sessions with the group. Their aim was to work with the students to develop T-Shirt designs based on their interpretation of what a superhero was or could be, using their own personal tastes and styles to influence the design, but also absorbing some of the ideas they had already seen at the museum. The workshops were designed to be very practice based, with lots of fast paced activity, time to explore new processes and materials but also have fun. We utilised tie-dye, fabric pens, spray paint and image transfer printing as well as sewing skills to develop designs – a lot to get through in 3 weeks!

The process of designing the T-shirts was highly democratic and we gave each student the freedom to choose the colours, and processes they wanted to work with. We also encouraged ‘risk taking’. In this sense providing each student with the freedom to explore processes, experiment and try things to see ‘how they worked’.

The group all enjoyed the tactility of tie dye, and its brilliant, bright outcomes. They particularly enjoyed spray painting over their t-shirts, which was direct, bold and a medium they wouldn’t normally use in school. Their approach was very creative, and they all thought about their designs as they developed, making decisions for themselves, supported by the artists. Having students ask if they could try something or ‘what would happen if..’ was a question that regularly cropped up.

As the weeks went on, we were able to get to know each student and they became more confident working with us. At this point we were able to introduce further learning to the project, linking in two artists that we are familiar with in our own practice.

The first was Sun-Ra the American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, and poet known for his experimental music. His philosophy was a vision of progress—of a future, inspired by Black American culture, that would be as glorious in its own way as the one promised by the technological advances of a segregated American society. His group, which he called the Arkestra, was a kind of collective, anchored by a core of musicians who spent almost their entire careers with him.

Ra was, in effect, a prophet, and his band members were his disciples. The philosophical sound-world he created for them—which overleaped the present tense to link the past and the future—was the basis for inspired solos and group improvisations that helped to redefine modern jazz. From the start, Ra and his Arkestra performed in elaborate costumes that suggested both the hieratic and the antic. Their utopian vision was pan-cultural, involving myth and science, dance and chant, theatre and comedy.

The students were interested in the idea that Sun-Ra’s band all lived together and would dress up in their cosmic costumes. They liked the idea that costumes could be ‘collaged’ out of materials and objects to form narratives and stories about the wearer or the image that the wearer wanted to portray. As a development to this we would have loved to explored Ra’s music in more detail – another time maybe!

The second artist was a personal friend of Keith’s, the New York based Rammellzee was a visual artist, gothic futurist "graffiti writer", painter, performance artist, art theoretician, sculptor and a hip hop vocalist, who has been cited as "instrumental in introducing elements of the avant-garde into hip-hop culture". Keith worked with him during the late 90s, producing several tracks and performing in London and Marseille.

The group was interested in the development of his work from his very early graffiti styled work, to the development of his painting using found objects and mixed media. They also enjoyed learning about his ‘gothic futurism’ work, developing letter forms into weaponised moving, abstracted vehicles.

As an artist who is considered to contribute to the canon of Afrofuturism, but also one who used costume and role-play within his work, we felt had important links to Black Panther but also the work that the group was producing.

Sadly, Ram died in 2010, but since then his work has been shown globally and reproduced. All the group had heard of the fashion brand ‘Supreme’ and were interested to see a collaboration between Ram’s estate and the brand. They were interested in the garments printed with sections of Ram’s paintings and could see similarities between their own work and the lines, patterns, colours and textures seen in these reproductions. Having a contemporary reference that was familiar to the group helped them make sense of the ‘back story’ behind the artists work and what they were setting out to achieve.

Description: a collection of images from the above-mentioned Black artists which inspired the students, include stage costumes and New York graffitti.

The final outcomes

All the members of the group were keen to make t-shirts to take home and to exhibit in the museum, we welcomed that approach. As a way of building esteem, connecting their lives out of school and having work to ‘show off’ to friends and family we thought this was a very important part of the project. Each student was able to make 3 t-shirts, a small painted canvass and 1-2 superhero masks.

Originally the project set about to make just t-shirts but as the group needed a surface to practice spray painting we decided to introduce the small canvasses. Several members of the group had also drawn masks or face coverings as part of their initial designs, mimicking the stereotypical superhero ‘style’.

Some discussed the idea that they liked the notion of taking on another identity when they wore their costume and already enjoyed Cosplay, Comic cons and dressing up for events, such as Halloween.

From a practical perspective we also knew some of the group were more comfortable having their photos taken with a mask, so we wanted to ensure their emotional needs were met – as well as any safeguarding issues.

Two of the group produced the darker grey costumes which involved using more than one t-shirt, additional fabric and sewing skills to make their constructions. They were very clear from the start about the look that they wanted to achieve, that involved cloak like styling and masks and were able to produce their designs from start to finish. They were really pleased their designs ‘looked like’ their original sketches.

One of the group was fascinated with Marvel and had a massive knowledge base. He was a very creative thinker and enjoyed developing stories and cartoons based on imaginary characters. He created a layered pink / tan t-shirt. As we got to know him, he spoke more about his design…

"My T-shirt is for a bounty hunter. He’s ok, he tries hard but is a bit rubbish at his job. He’s nearly always captured and keeps getting beaten up, that’s why his clothes get ripped, but he still keeps doing his job."

For this member, the process of working out the story behind the costume was in some ways more important than the final outcome.

Other members of the group combined tie-dye and spray paint to complete a series of bold designs and a couple were keen to draw designs and then transfer them onto their t-shirts.

One group member was interested in letter forms and the repeat of his name into a pattern, which he printed onto his t-shirt.

Another was interested in space, the cosmos and what goes on beyond our galaxy, this was reflected in his transfer printed design.

One notable T-Shirt was produced by a student who had limited fine motor skills. Because of this they found pen grip and detailed work difficult and often opted out of art-based activity.

With gentle encouragement and support they engaged very well with the project and produced work that they were proud of and looked amazing.

The exhibition and future work

We worked with the Food Museum’s team to place the work in the dining room area. As there was already a lot going on in this space we kept the display simple, with some images taken during the project to illustrate some of the activities. The group were able to come back to the exhibition and see their work in situ.

Throughout the project this was something they were very excited about and they loved the idea that their work was going to be shown in the museum, near to the costumes for the public to see. In this connection, they showed real pride in their achievements and worked consistently hard and with focus to complete their projects.

Some of the successes of the project were:

  • Engaging with a group of young people who had been largely excluded from mainstream education, to offer a unique and challenging opportunity, outside of their main curriculum.

  • To work with the Food Museum and Aspire Black Suffolk to offer a unique and ‘up close’ experience, viewing and learning about costumes used in Black Panther and the underlying themes and ideas raised in the film.

  • To work positively with Olive Academy to enhance their curriculum but also trial a new project, which has resulted in a positive relationship being formed between the school and the Museum, but also with Aspire.

  • To provide voice and creative opportunity to a group of young people largely overlooked by most community centric projects.

  • To engage with young people, offering them an insight into different materials and processes, fostering creative potential but also encouraging independent work, collaboration with staff and confidence building.

  • To introduce Black artists that were new to the group and discuss terms such as ‘Afro Futurism’ and ‘gothic futurism’. But also, how artists can seamlessly blend all forms of creative practice including music and visual art, interspersing their own cultural references to make thought provoking statements about the world we live in.

  • To discuss the development of graffiti culture and how letter forms and ways of stating identity have developed and changed over time.

  • To engage and encourage participants that may have found practical skills problematic, finding ways of working so they completed their project and had work they were pleased with.

  • To provide a safe, happy and encouraging environment that supported the group, allowing them to thrive, ask questions, talk about ideas and be valued.

  • To stimulate curiosity about new artforms and artists, in particular Black culture and talk about the relevance of their work to the group and how they might follow up their learning in the future.

If you'd like to arrange a school visit email the relevant museum. Here's the tour itinerary.

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