Jason Cyrus, 2021 Isabel Bader Fellow in Textile Conservation and Research, uses fashion as a lens to investigate connections between Agnes’s historical dress collection and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Underground Railroad and resource extraction.
Using advanced observational tools in the labs of the Art Conservation department at Queen’s University, his research project, History Is Rarely Black or White uncovers these stories in the study of cotton, not only to historically locate materials and their lineages, but to simultaneously highlight the rich legacy of racialized individuals who used clothing to assert their agency at a foundational time in Canadian history.
An exhibition featuring works from Agnes’s dress collection, alongside the contemporary art of Karin Jones, Gordon Shadrach, and Damian Joel, situates this research in historically referenced yet radically future oriented ways.
An embroidered cotton menswear vest (around 1792–1820), a child’s cotton dress (around 1893), and a young child’s cotton and silk suit (1870–1900) have been a few of the objects in the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress that Jason Cyrus has examined as the 2021 Isabel Bader Fellow in Textile Conservation and Research, along with and Isabel Bader Graduate Intern Anne-Marie Guérin.
“I use fashion as a lens to explore questions of identity, cultural exchange, and agency,” says Cyrus. “My research centres the experiences of marginalized communities within material culture as means of advancing decolonization.”
Cyrus and Guérin are examining the material culture of cotton garments through archival research and conservation science. Using a variety of techniques, including isotope analysis, they are working with experts to pinpoint where the cotton was grown. Archival records reveal where the raw material was woven and later sold. Based on their findings, Cyrus and Guérin are mapping a wider supply chain that connects garments at Agnes to resource extraction, Indigenous displacement, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad. The Victorian cotton industry played a key role in advancing climate change, global income disparity and the systemic oppression of marginalized communities. Cyrus locates direct connection to Canada through archival materials sourced from the Archives of Ontario.
The research culminates in History Is Rarely Black or White, an exhibition opening at Agnes on 27 November 2021. Here Cyrus connects the research on the global cotton industry to its ongoing legacy. Three artists engage cotton’s colonial history to discuss questions of identity and belonging. “Each of these creatives mines their lived experience as a racialized individual with heritage linked to global migration,” says Cyrus. “By doing so, they demonstrate the manner in which the burden of colonial history entwines itself in research, making and daily life.”
Karin Jones’s installation and Gordon Shadrach’s portraits implicate Canada’s role in the cotton industry by challenging erroneous narratives of Blackness created by colonialism. Damian Joel’s fashion story, Songs of the Gullah, connects this exploration to making in a manner that is historically referenced yet radically future oriented. The inclusion of Joel’s work brings the exhibition narrative full circle by juxtaposing the dress collection at Agnes with contemporary pieces based on similar networks of relation.
In 2021, Jason Cyrus and Dr Laura Peers were awarded the Isabel Bader Fellowship in Textile Conservation and Research. The program expanded to two fellows to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this remarkable program funded by Dr Isabel Bader. Dr Laura Peers's research project, which addresses geographical distance between Indigenous audiences and museums by advancing ways to improve remote visual access to collections. A deeper look into her project is forthcoming.
The Isabel Bader Fellowship in Textile Conservation and Research is a residency and research opportunity that promotes investigation in textile conservation and costume history. The Fellowship links two of Queen’s University’s unique resources: the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress at the Agnes, which comprises over 2000 articles of fashion from the late 1700s to the 1970s, and the Master of Art Conservation Program, which offers Canada’s only graduate degree in art conservation theory and treatment.