She is Hollywood’s queen of Afrofuturist costumes: For 40 years, designer Ruth E. Carter has been developing fashion for major motion pictures, including “Black Panther.”
It is the most commercially successful Afrofuturistic US work to date: the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther was nominated for an Oscar in seven categories in 2019, ultimately winning three of the awards including for best picture and best costume design.
The Oscar-winning designer of the film’s groundbreaking costumes was Ruth E. Carter.
Carter, who was born on April 10, 1960, in Springfield, Massachusetts, had originally planned to pursue a completely different career path: She wanted to become an actress.
But it was when she started helping out in the costume department of her student theater group at Hampton University that she found a new calling. So after graduating from university, she trained as a costume designer at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, subsequently moving to Los Angeles.
For more than 40 years now, Ruth E. Carter has been designing costumes for independent films and Hollywood blockbusters alike, working with Stephen Spielberg, Denzel Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson, among many others.
Using fashion to communicate African heritage
The outfits of the Black Panther protagonists are currently on show at the SCAD FASH Museum Fashion + Film in Atlanta, which runs until September 2021.
The 61-year-old Carter says she purposefully designs Afrofuturist costumes to convey messages on Black identities. For her, Afrofuturism means “to unite technology with imagination and self-expression to advance a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous People that allows them to believe and create entirely without the barriers of slavery and colonialism.”
This approach to Afrofuturism is still relatively young and somewhat utopian, explains Natalie Zacek, a lecturer in US history and culture at the University of Manchester.
With Afrofuturism existing for over 25 years now, there are many different definitions of what image of African identities it is designed to convey: “Afrofuturism is often about imagining a world where the transatlantic slave trade has never taken place, without the European colonization of the African continent. What would have become of African cultures and societies then, artists wonder?” Zacek explains.
Afrofuturism between Hollywood and Nollywood
These visions of African identities, however, often differ between artists from the United States and those on the African continent: For decades, African authors have been writing science fiction stories, most of which are classically set in outer space or in a futuristic city. In recent years, the theme of the climate crisis has also been added into that fold.
But American and British storytellers often still focus on the past: “For artists in the US and the UK, the experience of the slave trade is always in the foreground of the diaspora experience,” Natalie Zacek told DW. The continent of Africa, she says, as a place of ancestors, is an almost mythically charged place from the past for many People of Color who live in the West. This is different, she says, for African artists, who live in Ghana or Nigeria, for example.
While African filmmakers are confidently venturing into genres like science fiction, they can often only dream of having the kinds of budgets that Hollywood productions do.
“The only film funding an African filmmaker can get usually comes from Europe, and European producers usually choose the kind of material that they think will do well at film festivals. That is content that deals with supposedly African issues like AIDS, genocide, the climate crisis and famine,” author and filmmaker Dilman Dila wrote in the international science fiction and fantasy magazine Mithila Review in 2017.
At that time, his science fiction film Her Broken Shadow hit the silver screens of Africa but was aesthetically more reminiscent of Blade Runner than of Black Panther.
Changing perceptions through art and design
In contrast to the films produced by African directors such as Dilman Dila or Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Black Panther grew into a global success, proving to Hollywood that a film in which hardly any white actors appear can make it big at the box office.
Carter was among the artists who contributed to the global success of the blockbuster. Throughout her career as a costume designer, she has primarily focused on the African-American experience, as the Atlanta exhibition makes clear, featuring 60 designs of her costumes over the decades.
Film director Stephen Spielberg hired her to design costumes for American slaves and slaveholders in the 19th century, for his blockbuster movie Amistad.
Spike Lee had her dress as an African-American action hero, and in Selma, she designed the look of civil rights icon Martin Luther King.
For Black Panther, Carter says she set out to introduce a radical change of perspective to the American public: “I think people will be able to contextualize and appreciate African art very differently now. That’s what we’ve done: We’ve appreciated it, we’ve reimagined it, we’ve evolved it and taken it to a different place.”
Content courtesy of Dw & Nairobi fashion hub