Dress as a site of multiple selves: Address and redress in Judith Mason’s The Man who Sang and the Woman who Kept Silent and Wanja Kimani’s You Have Not Changed

  • Kent Lindiwe Williams Independent researcher
Keywords: dress, macro-politics, address, redress, interface, web of narratives, Judith Mason, Wanja Kimani


In this article, I explore dress as mediator or interface through which multiple surfacings of the self are activated. I examine the types of address that artists Judith Mason and Wanja Kimani make through the motif of a dress, focusing on Mason’s triptych, The Man who Sang and the Woman who Kept Silent (1998) and Kimani’s installation series, You Have Not Changed (2012-2014). I suggest that the artists negotiate personal sufferings by way of dress as both address, and an act of redress. I argue that the dress in each artist’s work is a site of tension where narratives of artist, addressee and viewer come into play. I put forward a personalised approach to analysing dress and the stories it surfaces, instead of understanding it in terms of the macro-political (gendered, cultural, racial and socio-economic) identities it might evoke. This strategy is introduced with reference to Julie Botticcello’s (2009:132) notion that, ‘the nuances of identification in dress’ are lost when ‘a focus on the macro-politics of dressing’ is maintained. I critique the limits of Barbara Russell’s (2006:179) reading of Mason’s blue dress as a signifier of femininity. Instead, I demonstrate the subtle manner in which Mason uses the dress as an address and act of redress to herself, rendering it a ‘web of narratives’ through which many ‘tales’ are ‘told’ (Benhabib cited by Coullie, Meyer, Ngwenya & Olver 2006:3). I carry this idea through to an analysis of Kimani’s series and consider the personal and collective encounters that emanate from her dress. I contrast the manner in which Kimani’s dress resonates with collective experiences of the African diaspora to Sarah Kaiser’s and Sarah McCullough’s (2010:363) approaches to the diaspora through dress. Regarding dress with reference to the selves that each artist surfaces, I offer a fresh understanding of what seems to have become a tired interpretation of the macro-politics of dress.