April Bey: Colonial Swag
April 21 through June 11, 2022
By JONATHAN OROZCO, May 2022
April Bey, a distinguished fiber artist who grew up in the Bahamas, now based in Los Angeles, is establishing a utopian world called Atlantica. This planet is an outgrowth from Bey’s own personal history. In her childhood, Bey’s father sat her down and told her a common shared truth for black and brown people. “Even though it’s not right, you’re going to be treated differently based on how you look,” Bey recalls him saying.
Atlantica is really a planet referring to stories Bey’s father told her to explain racism and pigmentocracy on Earth. The artist identifies this planet as her true point of origin.
“We’re aliens sent to Earth on duty to report [back]. That’s why we look different,” Bey says. “I’m not special. I'm not different. I am an alien from another planet and I’m making fashion from that planet.”
Atlantica should be a point of interest for economists on Earth because it destroys everything we know about wealth and natural resources. The fruit of Bey’s entrepreneurial venture is seen in her solo-show Colonial Swag at TERN Gallery until June 11.
Colonial Swag is an ongoing series borrowing its name from Bey’s luxury fashion brand on Atlantica. It “uses fully sustainable, ethically mined colonialism from Earth’s developing countries to create beautiful, priceless pieces of fashion,” reads the press release.
These pieces are opulent, freely using glitter, brightly colored fabrics and furs. They are also representational, depicting people in repose and proudly posing for the viewer.
“The people depicted are Atlanticans,” says Bey.
Keep Acting Funny So I Can Be Hilarious, a work from this year, shows a woman with a hand on her hip, wearing a purple and white patterned top and skirt with a belt made of fingers in front of a glittery pink background. The corners of this piece are lined with green fur. Like the other works, they are like patchwork quilts, with each segment sewn together like a puzzle piece.
Two other works, Regret Was Expressed Just Now Tho and You Told Harpo to Beat Me, depict Queen Elizabeth dressed in lavish clothing and jewelry… behind bars.
“The image of the Queen is loaded for me because growing up, we were told she was the embodiment of God,” says Bey. “Whenever I did something bad I imagined seeing God and the Queen staring at me.”
The Queen is metaphorically on punishment, a reversal from the exalted position she has as a global monarch whose nation once had control of almost a quarter of the world’s land.
What is so fascinating about Bey’s work is that they were formulated to turn the past hundreds years of European colonialism onto itself, using extractive processes to improve the lives of everyone on Earth and Atlantica, as strange as it may seem.
The currency on Atlantica is glitter. Race does not exist on Atlantica. And there is no citizenship on Atlantica.
This has been an interesting point of contention for the artist and her viewers. In lectures, white audience members repeatedly ask her two questions: “Can I have a passport?” “Are white people allowed on Atlantica?”
It’s fascinating that even in a future, space-exploring era, there would still need to be documentation to travel from one world to another. It’s reminiscent of the Earth a century ago which exists in the minds of people today.
Bey’s world is not run by tyrants, and white people are indeed allowed to enter Atlantica. Because there is no such thing as citizenship, you don’t need a passport to live in this world. Even if there were, it wouldn’t be an issue since the concept of race isn’t a real thing on this planet.
As a whole, it leaves us with an interesting take on fashion and how it intersects with the economy, now and throughout history. Think of the history of raw materials and how they were harvested, hundreds of years ago but also now, where Asia is a center for textile production.
Whereas many high fashion brands use unethical labor and processes that are destructive to the environment, Beys Colonial Swag intends to rectify that. WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author