Australia Italy - VIRGINIA RYAN



Appropriation, identity and hybridisation: the work of Virginia Ryan revolves around these concepts: in Shift / Rue de Commerce she interprets, with western eyes, the meanings and symbols that are interwoven in the colourful pagne (wax print fabrics) used in West Africa.

The story of these fabrics is basically viewed from a female standpoint; they are real semeiotic maps in which the ornamentation is only the most visible aspect of an iconographic metalanguage that envelops a whole world of dreams, hopes, ambitions and power.

It is a female story not just because the pagne are used to make the clothes (including the headgear) that give African women their regal appearance even in daily life, but because women, like Nana Benz from Togo, have created a real economic empire, making wax print fabric known even outside the national boundaries.

In Shift / Rue de Commerce we find a strong connection with the history of wax print but, rather than an ironic key, in the eyes of the Australian artist there is the unconscious attempt to set some kind of order in the chaotic vision of Africa.

The work is conceived as a dialogue based on an ambiguity resulting from word play: the English word “shift” can mean movement, but it also has other meanings such as the shift dress created by Coco Chanel in the Twenties and still a cult garment.

Ryan also chooses to use the so-called religious pagne to sew shifts. These are pagne that may commemorate a particular occasion linked with Catholicism, the religion practised by a large part of the population of the Ivory Coast, or that simply express the devotion of the wearer to a specific saint or to the Madonna, in other words a kind of wearable ex-voto.

In using the shift there is another metaphorical revolution: it’s not just a question of style and fashion, the shift has perhaps been the most popular garment since the end of the Fifties, reaching the apotheosis of simplicity and elegance in the black super-chic version designed by Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The reference to the Sixties is not a coincidence either, because the various countries in French-speaking West Africa proclaimed their independence in that period of history. So the dress - or shift - made of African fabric also symbolises the gaining of independence.

An aesthetic quest for beauty in which the pattern goes beyond the borders of pure ornamentation.


Text by Manuela De Leonardis