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Margarette Joyner Highlights Untold Narratives Through Costume Design

Multi-faceted designer shifts the angles on Black history

art and textile artist/creator, Margarette Joyner
Margarette Joyner (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

When people think of Black history, African history, or the like, they tend to gravitate to the horrors of said history.

While learning about the atrocities that occurred during past time periods remains important, other stories exist. In fact, it’s just as critical to spread those narratives that depict Black people as more than being enslaved.

It’s those untold stories that Margarette Joyner seeks to explore in her exhibit, A Legacy of Elegance, currently showing at the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte’s Dubois Center in Uptown.

“A lot of people think that African American history began with slavery,” Joyner said. “It did not. We are a royal people — always have been, still are, always will be.”

Joyner’s exhibit showcases 12 articles of clothing that she designed alongside archival photos from the 19th century. The pieces are meant to highlight the ways in which Black people have lived a life of elegance over the years.

Joyner, a professor who teaches costume design at UNC Charlotte, combines historical designs with African fabrics to illustrate a story that differs from those shared in many schools.

“My idea was to take our past and merge it with the present,” she explained. “That’s why I used African fabrics and merged them with contemporary fabric to show that we come from royalty. Then I embellished all the costumes with cowry shells because that’s very important in our culture. It’s a sign of wealth and prestige.”

Historically, cowry shells were used as currency in various countries throughout Africa. Though they are no longer used as such, their significance remains an important facet of Black and African history.

The 12 pieces showcased in A Legacy of Elegance took about a month each for Joyner to make, with the exhibit coming together over the course of a year. Some pieces took longer than others — the cowry shells alone took a month to sew on to the costumes.

traditional mixed with modern art in the form of clothing
Pieces from Joyner’s UNC Charlotte exhibit (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Joyner said she got her inspiration for the costumes from lesser known history stories such as that of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a French-Caribbean musician and composer, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a formerly enslaved African girl who was brought to Queen Victoria’s court and became her goddaughter.

“When I saw [Bonetta] and she was dressed in beautiful, regal garments, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to display,’” she said. “Then I saw the movie about [Chevalier de Saint-Georges]. I was like, ‘That’s part of who we are.’”

The symbolism afforded by the carefully curated blends of cowry shells, fabric, and design elements come together to serve as the basis for a deeper dive, informing attendees of a history they may not have otherwise known.

The inspiration behind the art

The vintage Victorian styles in Joyner’s costumes are coupled with vibrant African prints — splashes of reds, yellows, blues, pinks, and purples adorn each piece, creating a moving combination.

Much like her creations, the stories that have inspired them are powerful, such as the story of an enslaved man named Nat who would walk a full day from his plantation to see his wife and children, then a day back.

Margarette Joyner looks over one of her pieces in her Legacy of Elegance exhibit. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“That’s some powerful love, you know what I mean?” Joyner said. “I like to tap into the beauty of us, the humanity of us. And that’s part of the reason for this exhibit: to show that we’re an elegant, royal, beautiful people. Folks focus in on the horrors and the tragedy of enslavement, which it was, it was disgusting. It was one of the most horrendous things that was ever invented.

“However, we also, even in the midst of all that oppression and all that hate and all that pain, we still loved, we still cared about each other,” she continued. “We still had dignity, and we found ways to deal with all of that by loving on one another, by embracing our culture.”

While the vision is clear now, Joyner said she didn’t know why she started making the pieces in the first place.

“I am a strong believer in gifts from the universe,” she said. “When I first started this, I had no idea why I was doing it or what it was for, but I felt a calling to be able to do this and then it evolved.”

The vision came into focus when Joyner learned about Bonetta and Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Her inspiration to use African fabrics came from the knowledge that both of her muses would often revisit Africa whenever they were sick in order to be nursed back to health.

Joyner sources most of her fabrics from Richmond, though plenty came from her own personal collection, accumulated over the years from various sources.

Once she selects the fabrics, she’s no longer in charge, she explained of her process.

“Once I have the fabrics and patterns I let them speak to me, letting me know what they want to be,” she said.

Now that it’s all come together, Joyner said she hopes that her exhibit will be successful in telling the story she wants to tell.

mannequins wearing art pieces
Pieces from Joyner’s UNC Charlotte exhibit (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“I hope when anybody, little boys and little girls or anybody comes to see this, they can see themselves as part of that royal heritage,” she said.

The importance of remembering history

Though Joyner, currently a visiting assistant professor of Costume Design in UNC Charlotte’s Theatre department, resides in Gastonia and said she has “fallen in love” with Charlotte, like so many others in the city, she was not born here.

Joyner hails from Richmond, Virginia, where she gained a wealth of knowledge from her previous experiences. She taught at Virginia Union University, an HBCU in Richmond, as an assistant professor of Theatre, working as a “department of one,” as she put it.

“That meant that I taught the classes, I produced the shows, I directed, I wrote, I designed; I did everything,” she said.

After six years at Virginia Union, the school underwent organizational changes that didn’t work for Joyner, so she decided to leave. She wasn’t sure of her next direction initially, but she quickly got her answer after she put out several applications and got a reply from Colonial Williamsburg.

There, she portrayed an enslaved Black woman named Mama Succordia. The experience had a profound effect on Joyner, who said she found both good and bad in it.

“It was beautiful and horrible,” she said. “It was beautiful because I got to give voice to people who didn’t have one, even though I was censored as to what I could say because I was literally portraying an enslaved person. Whenever I wrote a program for a solo performance as Mama Succordia, I could say what Mama Succordia could have said and then people had to listen.”

Joyner took what she learned through her lived experience at Colonial Williamsburg to put toward other projects. In Charlotte, she worked with the Historic Rosedale plantation in November 2023, designing costumes for folks performing African American Ring Shout, a tradition historically rooted in Africa and created by enslaved people in the Carolinas and Georgia.

There were, of course, more troubling aspects to portraying an enslaved woman day in and day out, made worse by the ignorance of some patrons.

textile art
A piece from “A Legacy of Elegance” exhibit (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“One of the most common questions was, ‘Did you have a good master?’” she said. “And can you imagine representing this enslaved person and I have to explain to these people that you cannot put the word ‘good’ and ‘master’ in the same sentence?”

She would often have to debate guests, as they would feel that, because the people who enslaved Mama Succordia clothed her and may not have physically abused her, they weren’t necessarily bad people.

“I would have to explain, I’m dressed this way not because I choose to, but because I’m representing his wealth,” she said. “No, they don’t beat me, but I cannot leave when I want to. No, I can’t speak out in public unless I get their permission. So that’s not a good person. A good person would not own another person. A good person would not deem me property, put a price tag on me, buy and sell my children at will, even if they’re being nice about it. That’s not a good person. So that was the hard part, is folks wanting us to make them feel better about history.”

After three and a half years reenacting the life of the enslaved, Joyner had enough. She left Colonial Williamsburg and applied for a job at UNC Charlotte.

Today, Joyner still struggles with just how little she knew about Mama Succordia beyond her apparent value to white traders: 10 pounds. Aside from that, all Joyner knew was her name, her owners’ names and that she was an elder.

“That’s it; there was nothing else,” Joyner said. Because our stories were not important. But they are important — they weren’t important to [enslavers]. So I want to show in probably all of the work that I do that there’s more to us than slavery, there’s more to us than oppression, even though we deal with it daily. There’s far more to us than just that.”

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