The stylist, photographer, and designer talk to Dazed about their first large-scale NYC exhibition, Soft Criminal
Stylist Ibrahim Kamara, photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman, and designer Gareth Wrighton have an incredible knack for suspending reality. Their collaborations use photography and fashion to make cultural commentary via fantasy. Last year, they re-imagined 16th-century art for the Tate for their zine Coachie, which was a strong reclamation of cultural identity in an institutional space. Now, they’ve intersected their wide-ranging personal histories to produce Soft Criminal, their first large-scale New York exhibition, running from September 12–23 at Red Hook Labs.
Soft Criminal is set in an alternate universe as it traces three fantastical, interrelated narratives of characters from the African diaspora. A royal dynasty is met by an anarchist gang trying to overthrow them, and new money hackers who are assisting in the coup. Set against barren and far-reaching landscapes with eerie dead trees and dry deserts, the show’s carefully crafted photography, styling and garments are out of this world, and yet also reflect realities of living in our world in 2018. The jarring tension between the royal dynasty and new money hackers reflects our technological society, which is still rooted in dominant power (and class) structures.
Above all, Kamara, Moolman and Wrighton’s new show is a surrealist point of escapism from our world’s turmoil, while also nodding to a brighter future. Ahead of the show’s launch, the team spoke to Dazed about why we need to see Soft Criminal.
What does Soft Criminal mean to you all?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: The show is a two-dimensional and three-dimensional manifestation of our world that we’ve been recreating. It’s like a complete visual collaboration between three creatives who have these different ideas that live in the same world.
Ib Kamara: It comments on culture, but in a fantasy universe that we all can relate to. We really pushed this idea of our world, which we’ve been living in for the past year, cementing these characters but also reflecting what’s been happening in the world around us.
Gareth Wrighton: By channelling through these fictional characters, we’ve been able to dig even deeper and start tackling even wider subjects, which has been really fulfilling. We’ve built a broad universe, covering three sides of a dispute. We designed a royal dynasty, an anarchist gang who want to overthrow them, and the new money hackers who are helping them so do. From scratch we’ve engineered and designed all opposing ideas and conflicting motives in this revolution, so the show itself has an incredibly wide perspective. That’s been really exciting to infuse the work with this vivid narrative, and it has made it incredibly cinematic.
“From scratch we’ve engineered and designed all opposing ideas and conflicting motives in this revolution, so the show itself has an incredibly wide perspective” – Gareth Wrighton
The show is inspired by personal histories – are there any that you can detail that emerge in the show?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: On a subconscious level, it’s a merging of our backgrounds, our present lives and the world around us. Gareth has grown up in England his all life, Ibrahim is from Sierra Leone, which had its own sort of conflicts and challenges and I’m from South Africa – so these histories all intersected in the show, even though we’re not trying to put them into a real-time political framework, it’s fantastical. And it’s a combination of everything we’ve experienced and what we’re experiencing now.
Why is fantasy so important to your collaborations?
Ib Kamara: We took these characters and gave them a very flat base in Johannesburg, and we really pushed their boundaries. It was great for us – especially for me and Gareth – to be in a space that’s not London. It’s a land where we can really express ourselves without rules. We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, just going back and forth, and changing those characters. And as the world continues to change, we realise our characters have more backstories that really reflect on what culture is now. We spent a lot of the time refining characters, photography wise, styling wise and design wise to give them more depth.
How do the characters translate into the garments?
Gareth Wrighton: One of the families is new money they have the most technological excess, different textiles, there’s a look made of plastic. But then the old money is much more about a royalty, a certain aristocracy. So every character is very informed by their looks – there’s a look in which silk makes up the core material, because we wanted a really luxurious base to work on.
You all collaborated last year with Coachie – how does Soft Criminal build upon that?
Kristin-Lee Moolman: Everything we create, regardless of whether it’s for Soft Criminal or for Coachie, exists in this crazy parallel universe that references aspects of our reality now. It just goes in its own narrative and its own direction. It’s not a complete representation of reality as it is now, it's more of a ‘welcome to what’s in our brain!’
Ib Kamara: Coachie was more of a relaxed thing, where we were having fun. But for Soft Criminal, we had extra time to do this body of work. Each project we create has its own images, its own thing, its own world. We worked so hard for the past year and we put so much of our personal lives into it. Hopefully people will take away something from the show, which makes them realise something about the world we live in.
Soft Criminal is on at New York’s Red Hook Labs between September 12–23. You can find out more here