Glenn Ligon Designs Handbag for Studio Museum in Harlem
Designer bag will fund art education programs at the museum.
Glenn Ligon is dipping his toe into the fashion world in order to raise funds for the youth education program at the Studio Museum in Harlem, teaming up with designer handbag makers MZ Wallace on a limited-edition tote bag.
In a press event unveiling the new bag, Studio Museum director Thelma Golden introduced Ligon and MZ Wallace founders Monica Zwirner and Lucy Wallace Eustice. For the bag’s design, Ligon employed one of his text paintings, Untitled (I Am Somebody), based on a phrase popularized by Reverend Jesse Jackson, originally from a 1950s poem by pastor and civil rights activist reverend William Holmes Borders.
The words, overlaid in varying densities, at times quite illegibly, appears at the same scale as the original piece—something that was important to Ligon, who wanted to use an artwork that would lend itself to the existing shape of the Metro Tote, MZ Wallace’s popular quilted nylon bag.
“When I was approached about an image for this project, I thought the message of that image and its history, and also how it works on the bag when I saw the sketches, that this is a perfect marriage of these two things.”
Although Ligon’s one-off partnership with MZ Wallace is a first for the artist, he actually went to high school on the Upper West Side with Zwirner. The two lost touch and reconnected years later at a benefit dinner. Ligon didn’t recognize Zwirner’s name, but Golden, who was also in attendance, was a fan of the designer’s work. When Ligon sat down at the table, he introduced himself by saying “my friend Thelma really loves your bags—and oh my god we went to high school together!”
Ligon also has a longstanding relationship with the Studio Museum: In 1982, he had a curatorial internship at the museum, where, as he said, watching artist Terry Atkins playing the saxophone “really expanded my notion of what artwork was and what it could be.” He credits the museum with letting him think it was was possible for him to become an artist, rather than staying on the curatorial path. “This is where I started, and it quickly became home away from home,” Ligon explained.
For the Metro Tote project, it was again Golden that brought Zwirner and Ligon together. When she began speaking with Zwirner and Wallace Eustice about creating a benefit bag, Ligon was the only artist she considered approaching—and the results are exactly what she had envisioned. “What we were going for and what we’ve captured” with this bag, said Golden, “is personal, beautiful, and universal.”
Golden also emphasized the museum’s “great responsibility and privilege being here in Harlem,” and its “commitment to young people and education” and creating “opportunities through art.”
One of the museum’s community-based initiatives is its Expanding the Walls high-school education program, which gives 16 New York city high schoolers the opportunity to study the institution’s archive of James Van Der Zee’s classic Harlem Renaissance photography; create work of their own; and curate a group show of their own photos at the museum at the program’s end. The eight-month-long program meets two times a week (three times during the summer), and supplies each teenager with his or her own digital camera as well as a stipend. The museum is hoping proceeds from the tote bag will fund next year’s program.
The bag doesn’t ship to stores until November 1, but is already available for presale online. All proceeds of the $225 sticker price will go toward the museum’s education programs.
As for Ligon, don’t expect more fashion projects for him. He’s been approached with similar collaborations in the past, but was only interested in this one because it was a benefit. As Ligon points out, “it’s hard enough making artwork” without throwing extra commitments into the mix. That being said, he’s happy to know that “if I stop making art, I will have somewhere to go, because it was actually really fun!”
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