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Susan Barnett: The Cultural Phenomenon of the Printed T Shirt

The exhibition “The T-Shirt: Cult-Culture -Subversion” will open at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey on February 9, 2018. This is an historic opportunity to see where the t-shirt originated from and where it is indeed going. Accompanying this exhibition will be the work of American artist Susan Barnett with over 65 photographs from her typology “Not In Your Face”. Her book "T: A Typology of T-Shirts” was published by Dewi Lewis, UK in 2014 contains 250 images many of which will be on display here. Started in 2009 Susan now recognizes how the messaging has evolved and the viewer will get to see firsthand in this typology how it has changed over the years marking trends in society and politics.

When first started the emphasis on change and optimism was marked by bands of people wearing printed angel wings on their backs. Floating down the street you felt these individuals had your own back and that nothing bad could happen. We saw calls for higher values and social interaction that was marked by messages made popular by Barack Obama such has “Change Has Come” and “Yes We Can”. As Susan traveled the globe with her Leicaflex SL2 in hand and pockets full of Kodak Ektar 100 film, she began to see how these messages began to feel like “Time Capsules” as the New York Times had captioned them in 2015. Not unlike “CNN Breaking News”, T-shirt wearers used their own bodies to state what concerned them, what kept them up at night, what amused them, what they listened to but there was a sense of urgency and timelessness to the words.

Susan witnessed the so-called New York City earthquake on a Thursday afternoon in her hometown in August 2011. The following day in Chinatown she saw a shirt that stated “I Survived the New York City Earthquake” having been printed overnight. She did not have her camera and when she returned all the shirts had been sold out and she never saw it again. She missed a part of history…humble cotton cloth is the parchment paper of our time and these photographs chronicle who these people are, who they are not and what they want us to know about them. They might tell us where they have been, what they have seen, what they listen to, what makes them laugh or in some cases what they swear about and why. Nothing seems off limit in 2017.

Many photographs were taken on Venice Beach in California where the boardwalk is the newspaper of the moment. Susan has noted that months later she sees the same messages introduced on the East Coast appearing in New York City’s Time Square. One noticeable message during the 2016 election was a potent political message… Donald Trump was riding a motorcycle with Hillary on the back. The message said “If you can read this the Bitch fell off…” a direct recycling of the popular bar room t-shirt that said “If you can read this I fell off ”.

Susan’s interest in the t-shirt began when she was a student activist during the Vietnam era where she used her skills for her own form of activism. She would silkscreen the popular message of the day “Hell NO We Won’t GO” and give them to her classmates who were off to protest the draft and the continuation of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Since then she witnessed how the t-shirt evolved and in the 80’s she studied with the designer Milton Glaser who earlier developed the infamous “I Love New York” t-shirt to promote tourism in New York City. This was a new era where the heart symbol replaced the word “Love”. Today it is seen adapted to whatever city you find yourself in. Susan interest in signs and symbols was heightened when she first discovered that people were using the T-shirt as a means of communicating their own identity.

Her first sighting while standing at a stop light in Dumbo, NY was of a young African American woman whose silkscreened shirt revealed an African mask peaking out from under her suspenders. She realized by photographing from the back a person’s identity was made known by revealing not just a facial expression. The hairstyle, jean choice, personal demeanor all added up to a portrait. With this realization she began to navigate the streets, asking people’s permission and photographing T-shirts from the back in what is now over 15 countries throughout the world. Recently in Kyoto, Japan she found a remake of Kurt Cobain’s love T-shirt appearing prominently on twenty somethings.

Her portfolio now contains over 2000 or really 3000 photographs and it is growing. She has no intention of calling it a day as she reiterates the T-shirt is here to stay and its messages will always change. Susan hopes that after reading this and visiting the Fashion and Textile Museum you will be prompted to look in your own closet and find the hidden treasures that are your history. Susan will attend the opening of the exhibition and participate in a panel discussion on Friday Feb. 9. She will have her camera and would be happy to photograph you in your shirt (weather permitting). But not to worry about your makeup… it will be from the back.


T-shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion

9th February - 6th May

The Fashion and Textile Museum

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