Adrienne Wheeler White Dress Narratives, 2018/2020
Canvas, thread, and paint
Courtesy of the artist
For this site-specific installation, Newark-based artist Adrienne Wheeler used dress-shaped cutouts to represent six generations of her maternal lineage, from her great-great-grandmother to her youngest niece. Arranging them in three rows against a shiny gold wall, Wheeler highlighted nine women in her family, connecting them across generations. The three dresses in the top row signified Wheeler’s relatives who have passed away, presented as ancestors who watch over the six living women. The gold background cast a heavenly glow and suggested an altarpiece or ancestral shrine honoring the bond between the living and the deceased.
The cut-outs referenced a white dress Wheeler’s mother Elizabeth made in 1942 for her eighth-grade graduation. After discovering the original dress preserved in a cedar chest, Wheeler used it as a template to make nine exact-size canvas replicas, and embellished them with machine-stitching and painted designs. By creating subtle differences in the surface treatments of the dresses, she highlighted both the similarities and differences among this group of women in her family. Her use of sewing as a type of mark making underscores its significance to her family members.
Wheeler employed the dresses as vehicles for the women’s individual stories and personalities. In researching her ancestors, she pieced their narratives together from oral histories, interviews, historical documents, fiction, and her own imagination. She began exploring the white dress motif in 2015 in a glass book project and repeated images of the dress for a 2016 mural beside McCarter Highway in Newark. The group of dresses in this installation was last shown in Victoria, Australia, in 2018.
With this simple white dress, Wheeler continued to investigate complex ideas about family, gender, ceremony, and ancestral practices.