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Fashion (MA)

Chloe Johnson - PSHKN/a

Chloe Johnson (Also Known As PSHKN/a) is a multidisciplinary artist, designer and writer based in London. 

Graduating from Middlesex University in 2015 with a degree in Fashion Design, she has since gone on to have a successful career as a Multi-Product Fashion Designer for a variety of brands, specialising in Sportswear and Streetwear.

Chloe has used her time on the MA Fashion programme at the Royal College of Art to explore her personal creativity beyond the scope of clothing, delving deeper into her understanding of self, her talents in other fields, and purpose within the creative industry. Her work is inspired by the social, political, and historical culture of the Caribbean diaspora, with previous works centred around the Windrush Generation and her complicated relationship with religion. Her current project explores the legacies of colonialism, lost identities, and the diaspora’s yearning for ancestral connection. Each piece she created aims to provoke thought, spark conversation and re-humanise millions of people whose voices have been lost to the complexities of history. Using a variety of materials and mediums, from fabric to cane sugar, her work is manifested through fashion, installation, performance, sculpture, and literature.

Her work and words have been featured in various exhibits and publications, including London Fashion Week, Dazed Digital, Vogue Italia and The Fundamentals of Fashion Design. This year, she has published two books and will be exhibiting her work at two group exhibitions later in the year.

Chloe is also the recipient of the Burberry Design Scholarship and The Sir Frank Bowling Scholarship, both of which ensure that students from ethnic minorities and marginalised communities have equal access to Art and Design Education.

Photograph of my mother in Jamaica chewing sugar cane, next to a cane seller with a yellow stall.

“All slaves want to be free – to be free is very sweet.” – Mary Prince

The aim of my design practice is to provoke thought and inspire conversation - exploring and amplifying the nuances of the social, political, and historical culture of the Caribbean diaspora, finding beauty, delicacy, and value in the often dark and perverse aspect of black history. Sometimes the work is gentle in its approach, and sometimes the message is intense and arresting, luring the audience into a false sense of security before forcing them into a state of discomfort and confrontation. Finding many ways to encourage others to engage with the work only benefits the overall goal. The more we talk, the more we explore, share, cry, debate, the closer we ALL get to social and political equality and freedom. The more stories that are told and engaged with, the more work with meaning that is created, the more that is documented, the more that is remembered and passed down through the generations. My work serves to honour those who have been forgotten, whilst also ensuring I am not forgotten too.

The culmination of two years on the MA Fashion programme is ‘To Be Free Is Very Sweet’ – a body of work, inspired by a personal loss, that also explores the disorder, loss and displacement that has been a constant feature in the lives of the Caribbean diaspora, past, present, and future. 

What started as a deeply personal investigation into my family history, following the death of my mother (pictured left) and loss of my identity, became an exploration into the collective mistreatment of black Africans and Caribbeans, the lack of academically accepted material documenting their lives and how these historical injustices have had a ripple effect on society today. 

There are many key themes that are explored through the work, primarily the idea that the Caribbean diaspora and their ancestors exist within three bodies – the body of domination, the body of suffering and the body of pleasure. Each existing simultaneously within each of us. These three themes provided the basis for many of my visual and material choices - which are outlined below.

This work is my way of filling gaps in time, but also reframing the narrative and attitude towards a dark period of history, where my ancestors were stripped of their voices, humanity, and identity – but never their resilience and pride. 

Drawing parallels between past and present, focusing on using materiality and paradox, the work aims to confront and educate the audience on the realities of life for marginalised communities, whilst also providing solace and empowerment for those who resonate with it. 

Each piece contributing to a much needed archive of our stories being told in our own voices.

“In the nonconsensual collaboration with inhuman materiality as both a property of energy and in concert with other energy sources (sugar, coal, mineral), slavery weaponised the redistribution of energy around the globe through the flesh of black bodies. [...] the human cost was the immense physical and psychological toll on the enslaved. Their lives were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice." - Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or none

The following work uses granulated cane sugar as the primary medium - cast into objects that resonate with the Caribbean Diaspora, and used as a source of weight in soft sculptures that represent modes of punishment and oppression.

Heirlooms, 2022A Replica of a Trinket Jar inherited from my Grandmother. Objects that hold memory within a family setting, heirlooms, pieces of jewellery, objects from the home. Granulated Cane Sugar, Pine Resin, Sterling Silver
At What Cost?, 2023The total sum paid to William Shand by the British Treasury in 1836 - compensation for the loss of 429 slaves on his plantation in Kellitt's Jamaica. Granulated Cane Sugar, Pine Resin
We Can Talk While We Play, 2022A Dominoes Set. Granulated Cane Sugar, Pine Resin, Chrome Powder
You are invited to engage in a game of dominoes with me using this set. During the game, the participant is encouraged to engage in conversation with me about whatever comes to mind, whether that be the work or their personal lives, mimicking the experience I had playing with my mother. Over the course of the game, the dominoes will get sticky and may break, a metaphor for the lack of permenancy in human connections and interactions.
We Can Talk While We PlayA Dominoes Set. Granulated Cane Sugar, Pine Resin, Chrome Powder
Gone To Market, 2022From the Soft Sculpture series 'Instruments of Punishment and Disgrace'. Inspired by the commodification of black women’s reproductive systems during enslavement. To be worn around the waist, the location of the uterus and where women carry their weight, the shape of the pieces is inspired by the pockets and pouches women wore to market. Granulated Cane Sugar (2 x 1KG - Equivalent weight to an 18th century child’s ankle shackle), Osnaburg Cotton
Weigh Me Down, 2022From the Soft Sculpture series 'Instruments of Punishment and Disgrace'. Creating a paradox between ideas of comfort and discomfort, this piece takes it’s weight from the description of the punishment of a 60 year old man. This weight would have been carried for 12 hours a day. Weighted Collar: Granulated Cane Sugar (9KG - Equivalent weight to an 18th century adults iron shackle, chain and ball) Wool Mountboard Polyester Spandex
Sweet Links, 2023An exploration of the physical weight of an 19th century iron chain, shackle and ball, in the formof a soft sculpture. Each link contains 1KG of sugar, with the piece weighing a total of 9KG. Granulated Cane Sugar, Osnaburg Cotton, Direct Dye

The body as a site of punishment. The body as a site of resistance.

Whilst at work, the bodies of the enslaved were in service of their owners and the clothing they wore reflected that. The clothing was made from fabrics, commonly referred to as 'slave cloth', that were coarse and durable and the items were typically mass produced and of low quality. The scarcity in the availability of the clothing, along with the back breaking work they endured daily, meant that the enslaved wore through their supplied clothing at an extreme- ly fast rate. Due to limited access to extra materials, many had to make do with what they had, repairing what they could as and when they needed to. By providing low quality and limited wardrobes, plantation owners were creating a visual code of dress that was meant to mark enslaved people. Immediately, by sight, you could tell who was free and who was not.

The enslaved didn’t just wear these markers of slavery without push back. Their bodies were used as sites of punishment, but they were also sites of resistance. People in the worst circumstances always find ways to bring joy and pride back into their lives in any way they can, and the enslaved did this particularly through taking pride in their dress and craft. They were resourceful, recycling, collecting scrap materials, using plants for natural dyes and also 'stealing' what they could to create clothing that spoke to their individuality, and their desire to rise above the way they were treated.

The following images show the initial development of The Uniform, a collection of base pieces created in a ‘slave cloth’, allowing for small individual customisations such as colour pocket placement and sleeve length. Intentional areas with a less than perfect fit to allow the wearer to show off other adornments of the body, changing the way we think about made to measure and what we define as luxury. A representation of creative resistance and resilience.

The possibilities are endless.

dye samples in shades of brown, orange and yellow.
Dye SamplesRecreations of dye colours that would have been available to enslaved communities in the 18th and 19th Century.
Light brown cropped women's jacket with frayed edges.
The Uniform, 2023Womens Jacket - Osnaburg Cotton, Direct Dye
Light brown cropped women's jacket with frayed edges.
Light brown men's jacket with frayed edges.
The Uniform, 2023Mens Jacket - Osnaburg Cotton, Direct Dye
Light brown men's jacket with frayed edges.
a close up of light brown women jacket with frayed edges.
a model wearing a light brown women jacket with frayed edges.
a model wearing a light brown women jacket with frayed edges.

Metal often comes up when discussing the methods of punishment inflicted on others throughout history. Many other devices, hooks, and contraptions were forged in metal designed to inflict the maximum amount of suffering on the subject with some even designed to kill. You can find examples of these in museums and archives all over the world, and sometimes in the possession of descendants of plantation owners. From the moment of capture in Africa, iron chains and shackles were used to restrict movement, prevent escape, and instil fear. These were heavy, constantly rubbing against the skin, causing extreme discomfort for those forced to wear them.

In contrast, metal was also used to adorn the bodies of the enslaved in less harmful way. In art galleries and stately homes across Europe, you can find 16th and 17th century portraits of nobility with their young black slaves in tow. If you look closely enough, you will often notice these young slaves with a glimmer of silver around their necks. Many slave owners had their household slaves wear fine silver collars engraved with the owner’s name, address or family crest. These are the collars you can see in these paintings – paintings such as Young Negro with a Bow by Hyacinthe Rigaud and Portrait of Madame Claude Lambert de Thorigny by Nicolas de Largillierre.

A neck piece of precious metal that in one context is a marker of wealth in the wearer, is instead a signifier of servitude and the wealth of the owner. It’s a status symbol.

The idea that a slave would be adorned with something so ornate like a silver collar is one of the many paradoxes of enslavement.

Giving something of value to someone with no value, doesn’t quite make sense.

But this very idea inspired me to use precious metal to recreate these tools and markers of oppression, some wearable and some a little more violent.

The following works are exploration of creating little precious things with deeper, darker meanings.

a set of rings made into the shape of shackles. Copper and Silver
A set of rings. Small beautiful things with darker meanings. Copper and Sterling Silver.
symbols cast in bronze, set on a white plinth.
Objects of Ritual, 2023Functional and Ornamental Branding tools, cast in Bronze. Branding tools were used in the process of dehumanisation in an almost religious and ritualistic way. Letters and religious symbols were seared into the flesh of captured Africans, marking their transformation from human to commodity.
Metal hook structure leant against a concrete wall.
European Seasoning, 2023Used to fix a person into position or to pierce the flesh and hang a body from, this wall hook is both a static artwork and part of an interactive installation. The visual appearance of hook is a direct replica of its historical inspiration. Mild Steel.

Scent is a tool for Education

Birth, Death, Rebirth is multi-sensory scent experience inspired by the connection between scent, emotion, and memory. The aim of the experience is to take the participant on a journey through the Birth (life in 18th century West Africa), Death (the Middle Passage), and Rebirth (life on the plantations of the Caribbean) of the ancestral bodies of the Caribbean Diaspora using scent. The scents created for this experience, formulated in collaboration with IFF and perfumers from ISIPCA, are to be used as a tool to educate, provoke thought and conversation – adding a new dimension to the way that we learn and empathise with those around us.

With racially motivated hate crimes on the rise all over Europe, a little bit more empathy is something that we all need right now. Some of us more than others. 

Birth, Death, Rebirth takes on two forms, the first - a large-scale static installation to be set up in a gallery space such as the Tate or a disused sugar factory.

The installation consists of a large cloth and wood structure designed to fill a 30x30 square metre room. Those engaging with the installation will move between the cloth-walled rooms, experiencing the three differing scents and parts of the enslaved Africans journey as they go. The centre of the installation, the area that is representative of the middle passage, has a much darker and restrictive atmosphere, which combined with the scent, will give the participants a true sense of what it would have been like, below deck on a cargo ship. The material of the walls, the levels of light, the restriction of space and the feeling beneath their feet, all make the experience as immersive as it can be.

The other form that the experience takes is the most impactful. This version of the experience is designed to be a portable workshop that can be held in corporate workplaces, schools, colleges, and universities. This version could also be sent to individuals to experience within their homes.

This experience comes in the form of a box, containing three scented candles, a wooden tray, wooden wall hangings, a variety of educational materials and instructions on how to use them. The design, and material of each of these items has been carefully considered and has a relevance and significance to the narrative that is being told.

a 3D render of beige fabric hanging from the ceiling to create a room.
Large Scale Installation. Renders for the proposed installation space to be set up in the Tate or a disused sugar factory.
a 3D render of beige fabric hanging from the ceiling to create a room.

Olaudah Equiano’s memoirs were a key inspiration in formulating each of these scents – with his descriptions of his life before enslavement and his journey across the Atlantic inspiring many of the ingredients.

Birth is the scent that introduces the experience. It is inspired by life in 18th century Benin, Nigeria and is designed to bring forth the memories and emotions of a happy childhood.

Death is the most important and impactful of all the scents, intended to be a sharp contrast from the first. Inspired by the middle passage, this is the scent of pain and suffering, designed to make you feel fear, uncertainty, and despair.

Rebirth is the final scent. It’s a nod to life on the plantation estates of the Caribbean, the lives of the Caribbean diaspora today and their power of perseverance and optimism.

a wooden box, tray and candles arranged on table.
Birth Death Rebirth, 2023This box and its contents are designed to be used in a workshop style version of the scent experience. Box contains the scented candles, educational materials, reflective activity sheets, and wall hangings.
a wooden box, tray and candles arranged on table.
a wooden tray with an engraving of the cargo hold of a slave ship
a wooden box with educational materials on top.
a wooden box with three candles on top.