Michael Jackson as Fashion, Art, Icon: An Interview with Sequoia Barnes

I am simultaneously having the best and the worst time of my life as a ‘Teen Specialist’ at a camp for young girls from New York City, way out in the bush of upstate New York. The worst include the snake discovered in one of the classrooms, the ticks that we’ve been cautioned will give us Lyme disease, the truck-driving racists.  The best include fellow camp counsellor Sequoia — wonderfully eccentric dress sense, endearing Alabamian accent and humour so dry it hurt sometimes.

Sequoia is a Fashion scholar. After getting an undergraduate degree in Fine Art with Ceramic Sculpture at Spring Hill College, Alabama and a Master’s in Fashion at the University of Delaware, Sequoia moved to Brighton, UK to complete a Master’s in Design History and Material Culture. She is now a PhD candidate in the School of Design at Edinburgh University, Scotland.

This summer, Sequoia’s exciting opportunity – programming consultant for the ‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall’ exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London — became mine. As the admiring friend, I got to quiz her all about it.

 

How did you get the opportunity?

Literally at random. I got an email from the head of programming at NPG and I was like, first of all, who is this and why are you playing? I still don’t know where they found my work but I think either LinkedIn, an event or through a mutual contact.

What was your main focus as programming consultant? Did they ask you to take it in a particular direction?

In the beginning things were still being worked out with the Michael Jackson (MJ) estate– what can and can’t be done, tone etc – but what was stressed to me was that programming was a place where we could be innovative, have discussions around MJ not just as art, but as a human being, his complex life, the surrounding controversies. My focus was fashion. Even though the exhibit is heavily about portraits, MJ’s whole image was fashion. The jacket, the gloves, the socks, the shoes, his hair, his face. I also wanted to keep it real about blackness too, you know, MJ kind of ascended beyond blackness to the point where to a lot of people he was no longer black, just Michael the icon, Michael the god. I wanted to bring it back to MJ as a totem of blackness, of black culture. MJ, James Brown, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, they are all totems of blackness. MJ was ours first. I also wanted to have something for young people. We’re getting to the point now where kids might not know who MJ is, so I wanted to bring back his importance in music, fashion, Black American culture in general – he was our biggest export at one time.

How would you describe the exhibit to someone who hasn’t been yet?

I’d say it’s not explicitly about MJ. It only has one of his personal belongings – the dinner jacket with the cutlery hanging on the back. He used to put that jacket on whenever people visited Neverland because he thought it was funny.

Michael Jackson’s Dinner Jacket, as seen in the ‘Michael Jackson: On The Wall’ Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, 2018

I think if I was explaining the exhibit to a fellow academic, I’d say it is about the use of image and how an image is perpetuated throughout time. The image here is MJ, we are thinking about how his image can be interpreted by multiple people, what he means to them. An example is Lorraine O’Grady’s work, where she has MJ juxtaposed against Baudelaire as commentary on the similarity between the two. Or the musical piece by Candice Breitz where MJ’s image is created in his absence – his fans singing his music, dressed like him, dancing like him. So the exhibit is about MJ but in a very abstract, post-modern, contemporary way.

Big in East Germany … Candice Breitz’s film King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) 2005. Photograph: Candice Breitz

If I was talking to a fan, I would say the exhibit is about the artistic interpretation of MJ as an icon. He’s interpreted in so many ways. In the Kehinde Wiley one, which is the huge one of him on the horse modelled after Philip II, he’s depicted as royalty, being ‘larger than life’. The actual painting itself is huge. That’s my favourite piece in the exhibition.

Kehinde is well known for inserting black bodies into Eurocentric pieces of art. His pieces often elevate the black body to this religious, sober context.

I was just about to ask you what your fave piece is from the exhibit. Any others?

Wiley is my favourite yeah, then Lorraine O’Grady’s one. The David LaChapelle ones are amazing too – the religious ones. So vivid, camp and kitsch, which is David’s whole thing. The one of MJ as The Archangel, and the one of him in Jesus’ lap, oh my God, I wish I had a copy of that.

 

David LaChapelle American Jesus: Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer, (left) and American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly (right) courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.

I wonder how it’s being received because I’ve only read one review, which gave it a 3/5, mentioning a lack of memorabilia. But that’s not what the exhibit is about. I get it’s confusing that it’s an exhibition about MJ without much of his stuff or many pictures of him, but that’s not what it was about. MJ wasn’t just his glove. I’m not surprised that there’s so much artwork about him, in so many different contexts – dealing with one’s sexuality, blackness, sexism. If people are fans but not willing to expand their minds beyond fandom, I’d get why they’d be disappointed.

Okay so we’ve spoken about pieces, what about programming? What’s your fave event?

We’re screening The Wiz – which is going to be hilarious. I’m so excited for it. I remember in the first planning meeting, I went in and the first thing I said was, we have to show The Wiz. And they were like, what’s that? I was like, what do you mean what is that? MJ was in it! Best movie ever made! It’s an interesting film – a version of The Wiz which was on Broadway in 1974 – it’s been remade several times but that 1974 one got all the Tony’s. Which was a big deal because it was an all black cast, written by a black playwright.

But anyway, I can honestly say The Wiz is one of the blackest things you’ll ever see — the visuals, the allegories, the dancing, the costume. The first time I watched it I was like omg this is so bad, but so good. It’s quite satirical – it makes fun of histories black people have had to go through. The tin man represents blackness post-slavery, the cowardly lion to me is an amalgamation of black dandyism in the 19th century and Blaxploitation. His look and the way he carries himself is very representative of the look of the 70s, flamboyant hustler look with the high heels and almost made up, very feminine.

Michael Jackson is like this empty young guy scarecrow who doesn’t seem to have anything going on, maybe he’s a representation of  “new blackness” as Du Bois calls it, building up and educating a young black person, who doubts themselves because of what society has told them.

Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow in The Wiz, 1978.

If you can get past how tacky the movie is and really pay attention, it’s quite profoundly meaningful.  If it was better, we might have got the Black Panther movie ages ago.

Let’s talk about fashion. You’re a Fashion scholar, after all. Do you have a favourite MJ outfit, or perhaps a moment in time which symbolises MJ as fashion for you?

My fave MJ, is like post Jackson 5, 70s MJ, before the first nose job. He was in his teens, around the time The Wiz was filmed, wearing Mickey Mouse t-shirts, with bomber jackets, and cool hats – I love that mixing of stuff that shouldn’t go together – it was young, fresh, like where did he get that Mickey Mouse shirt? I like this pre-stratospheric fame MJ.

Michael Jackson in Amsterdam, 1979.

In terms of study, I think I would study Ba’ MJ, it’s so complex, where you first start to get that melding between feminine and masculine. You get hints of it in Thriller, just because of how he sounds and carries himself. But in Bad you start to see the real beginning of that white open shirt situation, with the In The Closet music video with Naomi Campbell. Especially in that black biker outfit with the glove and the really tight pants in the Bad video, there’s so much you can say about that.

Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ Single Cover, 1987.

Let’s talk Black Brits– do you have a favourite Black British artist/designer?

Designer right now would be Grace Wales Bonner – obsessed with her. I like things that blend genders or aren’t really gendered at all. Her work is menswear, but anyone can wear it. The cuts are amazing and the way she styles the runway, and how aware she is sociologically and historically.

Favourite stylist is probably Matthew Josephs. Matthew’s styling, not just the FKA twigs stuff, is just insane, his editorial stuff, his website, his Instagram.

Last question- what are you working on next?

Next is a study day for fashion students centred around MJ as a fashion. Students will get an exhibition tour led by the curator, a talk with a panel of industry professionals and academics, and then a workshop that uses collage and assemblage to create fashion images inspired by MJ.  I want to make sure the students get a finished piece of work after the workshop that they can use in their portfolios, because over here I think people have a hard time trying to get into these spaces – because young people don’t feel the spaces are for them.

We saw this at the opening night of the On The Wall exhibition, which was a private view – no young people, no people of colour. That’s common in these museum spaces – it’s really important to disrupt them. I know it’s easy to think ‘I don’t want to do things here because this space is exclusionary’, but that space needs you, you need to disrupt it. Even if it’s elitist and doesn’t care about POC, you go in there and make them care, create a space for people like you. Because if you don’t, who will? When?

And there are success stories – like the fact that you screened The Wiz, at the NPG!

Exactly – like the fact that even happened is amazing to me, because if you know NPG you know it’s very elitist and prestige, to even go in there let alone work there. So the fact that they are showing The Wiz, a movie which did really bad, and is so corny, and was very black, and so rooted in blackness, with no sad slave story, no tragic black child, just real 70s NYC blackness – I’m so proud of that alone.