Chesley Antoinette’s Lush Depictions of Turbaned Creole Women Continue the Conversation About Race
The Tignon — and the Defiance It Inspired — Is at the Heart of the Artist's Current ExhibitionBY Rebecca Sherman // 11.17.20
Chesley Antoinette’s No be ganado mi libertad sobre las espaldas, 2017
Chesley Antoinette, photographed by Kristina Smith
Chesley Antoinette's Cecile Indian Libre, 2018
Chesley Antoinette's Maria Juana, 2018
Chesley Antoinette's Rachel Pringle, 2018
The women in artist Chesley Antoinette’s photographs are gowned the way Creole women from the Deep South would have been 250 years ago: in fine silk ruffles and lace, or frothy blouses and embroidered aprons. Their turbans are highly sculptural and exquisitely adorned. Tignon — a French term that referenced the head coverings for affluent women of mixed European, African, or Caribbean descent — also has a nefarious connotation.
Tignon Laws, first enacted in 1786 by the Spanish and perpetuated into the 19th century by the French, required Creole women to completely hide their black hair. While the tignon was meant to shame and control, it ultimately became a symbol of rebellion. Instead of wearing simple cloth coverings, Creole women asserted their individuality and stature by wrapping their heads with bold and expensive fabrics accentuated with jewels, feathers, ribbons, and tassels. The tignon — and the defiance it inspired — is at the heart of Chesley Antoinette’s current exhibition, “Tignon,” which debuted at the South Dallas Cultural Center in 2018. It has since traveled throughout Texas, most recently to the Georgetown Art Center in February 2020. A November show at Duluth Art Institute has been postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19, but meanwhile the exhibit can be viewed via the Smartify app, and on her website.
A Dallas-based mixed-media artist with a passion for history, 35-year-old Antoinette researched real women from the Spanish and French colonial era in America through books and other writings. No images of the women exist, so she referenced paintings and drawings of Black women by European artists of the era as inspiration for the poses, settings, and compositions. Antoinette designed and constructed each tignon, collaborating with photographer JD Moore and stylist Courtney Guy to bring the portraits to life. The richly saturated colors and grainy finish give the works a painterly, sumptuous quality. In Louison Chastang, her glowing mocha skin is set off by pearls, a soufflé of pink roses, and greenery rising from her head in a billowy confection of fabric. Here’s what we know about her: The longtime companion of Jean Chastang, a white European living in Mobile, Alabama, during the late 18th century, Louison bore him 10 children. Jean described Louison in his 1805 will as a “beloved worthy friend and companion,” bequeathing her everything he owned. Such liaisons were illegal, but quite common according to Antoinette’s research.
In the beguiling No be ganado mi libertad sobre las espaldas, a young woman is draped in shimmering white fabric, her chocolate décolletage bare. She looks away from the camera, a meringue of cloth atop her head. The Spanish phrase in the title was reported to have been made in defiance by a free woman of color in an 18th-century New Orleans courtroom; it translates to “I did not earn my freedom on my back.”
The Tignon edict, meant to make mixed women less desirable, insulted Creole women who were already a part of Louisiana’s racially diverse community. Antoinette based the photograph on Portrait d’une Négresse, painted in 1800 by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, an aristocratic French artist and protégé of Jacques-Louis David and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, court painter to Marie Antoinette. The painting, one of the few during that time to depict free Black people, was purchased by Louis XVIII and hangs in the Louvre.
Chesley Antoinette’s fascination with turbans started in 2007 during a year in Lille, France, as a part of Stephen F. Austin’s study-abroad program. “I saw all sorts of women, both French and African, accessorizing with their scarves in a way I hadn’t seen growing up in Austin,” she says. “I loved the versatility — they wore them around their heads, their necks, and sometimes scarves became a blanket or a bag.” She began collecting scarves from open-air markets around France and experimented with them. “I began wrapping them around my head in different ways; like hairstyles, the way I do it changes. I never go out of the house without one.”
After college, she focused her MFA at the University of North Texas in Denton on fiber art and sculpture. There, she experimented with a wide range of materials including plastics and metals, which she fabricated into wearable art.
In 2017, Antoinette discovered the Tignon Laws while researching the history of turbans in North America. “That’s when everything started to take off. It was so fascinating,” she says. A grant from the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs allowed her to teach workshops on Tignon Laws at public libraries and cultural centers in Dallas. She combined the classes with head-wrapping sessions “to show the characteristics that were meant to oppress, including mobility and beauty.” A year later, she put a team together to produce her “Tignon” series. The work fuses stories of real Creole women in the Deep South with historic paintings of free Black women in Europe. “I wanted to talk about how Black women in society had a heavy role in shaping those cultures, just as Creole women and Black slaves heavily shaped culture in Louisiana,” she says.
Antoinette, who teaches art appreciation at Mountain View and Tarrant County community colleges, says a lot of what she does is teach students to see. “We don’t see with our eyes; we see with our brains,” she says. “Eyes just filter an image, and whatever preconceptions or influences we have then transform into what we see.” Her photography is a visual feast that provokes discussion. “It opens the door to talk about so many things — whether their sexual relationships were voluntary or forced, how they survived in a complex world, and even what it means to survive.” Much of what women of color dealt with centuries ago is still relevant today. “We are living during a very complicated time in history, where you have the interracial mixing of people and how they are communicating and reacting to it all. My work is part of that conversation.”
As a part of Dallas Contemporary’s artist-led programs initiative, Chesley Antoinette will hold a virtual, interactive workshop exploring the history behind the headwrap as it relates to Louisiana’s Tignon Law of 1786. In addition to the lecture, participants will each receive a headscarf sent directly to them; Virtual instructions will be provided on the styling techniques that were used hundreds of years ago as a way to oppress the beauty, intelligence and adaptability of the women who were forced to wear them. Chesley Antoinette’s Heart of the Headwrap, presented on Wednesday December 16 at 4pm. Cost to register, $10. For information and tickets visit dallascontemporary.org.