Michael Richards: Are You Down?  |  open through July 23  |  free to the public​  |  ​Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design  |  open through August 1  |  $20+ | The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Michael Richards: Are You Down? and Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, the North Carolina Museum of Art’s two spring exhibits, highlight the work of artists using a broad range of mediums to express and define Black history and culture.

In both, Black storytellers blend history, politics, and art to map a Black past, present, and future.

Regulars of the NCMA will be familiar with the work of Michael Richards, who has had a version of his sculpture “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian”—a golden statue of a Black airman pierced with small airplanes—on display at the museum for the past two decades. As they explore this new exhibit, which opened on March 4, viewers will find that other pieces of Richards’s work follow similar themes of Blackness, freedom, and flight.

Michael Richards: Are You Down? is the most comprehensive retrospective of Richards’s work to date. Born in 1963 in New York City, but of Jamaican and Costa Rican descent, his approach to his work was clearly informed by an American and Caribbean context—especially moments of colonial independence and the civil rights movement.

Michael Richards in Miami Beach in 1999. Photograph by Keith Holmes, courtesy of Carolyn Swiszcz. Credit: Photograph by Keith Holmes, courtesy of Carolyn Swiszcz.

The exhibit tracks how Richards’s art evolves over the course of a decade, exploring how he plays around with drawing, sculpture, and installation. Richards often used himself as a vessel for many of these ideas, casting his body as a stand-in to parse historical figures like the Tuskegee Airmen, issues like racism and police brutality, and an expansive desire for freedom from these oppressions.

Most eerie about Michael Richards: Are You Down?, and the span of its scope, is the extent to which Richards’s work also seems prophetic, bearing relevance to today’s most pressing and polarizing issues around race.

“These issues are still so relevant,” says Linda Dougherty, chief curator of the exhibit and curator of contemporary art at NCMA. “The things he was thinking about and talking about, related to his experience as a Black American man—racism, police brutality, social justice—those things haven’t gone away. Those issues are still here with us today.”

Richards died at the age of 38 on September 11, 2001, while working in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. This means that he missed living in a world impacted by that event. He missed the election of America’s first Black president. He missed the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which centered on the continued issue of police brutality. He missed the ongoing global pandemic, which has transformed how we live, work, and make art. Despite this, his work still reaches out from the past and speaks to us.

Richards’s work sought to illuminate a past and present of racism and social justice, but he also predicted a future in which these problems would not be resolved. Though his work dances on the line between art and politics, its seamless commingling is what makes the exhibit so powerful.

“It’ll be interesting to me to see who it appeals to,” Dougherty says of the exhibit. “I think we have a core audience that knows his work because we’ve had this one piece here on view for so long. So because of that, they will want to come see it. I think people interested in contemporary sculpture, contemporary art, and art that deals with social, political, and historical issues—the work will speak to those people. And I hope it’s the person that doesn’t come here intending to see it who is drawn into it and discovers something they didn’t know and hopefully shifts their perspective, [making] them look at the world [in] a different way.” 

Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, meanwhile—which opened on April 1 and is located in a neighboring wing—continues with the theme, commemorating Black identity and culture through clothing.

Viewers will know the art of Ruth E. Carter without realizing it, as her résumé as an award-winning costume designer very much precedes her. But thankfully, the exhibit is there to give viewers a refresher, showcasing pieces spanning her 40-year career and selections from her personal archive, as well as the archives of the studios she’s worked with.

Carter’s costume design gives life to characters and stories that encapsulate the Black experience. Most notably, she’s worked with the legendary director Spike Lee and the Black Panther franchise—the latter of which won her two Academy Awards, in 2019 and 2023. Displaying Carter’s work outside of these cinematic contexts marks its importance for filmmaking as well as works of art.

Ruth E. Carter costumes on display. Photo courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD Fash Museum.
Ruth E. Carter costumes on display. Photo courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD Fash Museum.

Maya Brooks, assistant curator of contemporary art at the NCMA, emphasizes the importance of costume design as an art form that shapes culture.

“I love that Ruth thinks of her work as ‘wearable art,’” Brooks says. “She’s not a fashion designer in that way, but she is making something wearable that expresses something.”

And this kind of storytelling is crucial as a larger part of culture, beyond the actual artifacts through which costumes circulate.

“It’s super important,” Brooks adds, “especially now, as we see more films dedicated to the Black experience.”

Costume design is an often forgotten cog in the wheel of filmmaking, but how characters look in a film is just as important as the plot, the score, or the directing.

“Think about Do the Right Thing,” Brooks says. “That was groundbreaking not only because of this conversation about police brutality and race relations, but it was groundbreaking in hip-hop because it was one of the first films that displayed hip-hop as a culture and subculture to [Blackness]. So you still see the remnants of that even today in filmmaking, where people are able to get this view [of Black culture]. Some outsiders get the view of Black culture, but for us insiders, we get to see ourselves represented authentically in new ways.”

This kind of storytelling is meticulous and requires a great degree of historical research and creative imagination. Carter’s work on Selma, a film focused on the civil rights movement with a very specific reference point, required a very different kind of preparation than that of a film like Black Panther, which draws from clothing traditions of African countries like Kenya and South Africa, with an added technological element embedded in Afrofuturism.

In the exhibit, viewers get an intimate look at Carter’s creative process, including mood boards, sketches, and photographs that inspired the final looks we saw on the big screen. This artistic expression is what Brooks hopes attendees appreciate.

“I hope they walk away with understanding not only more about Ruth as a person, but really as a creative, and also her thinking about culture,” she says. “There’s something to be said here about how forward-thinking [Black] culture is and her influence on that, especially in the Afrofuturism spectrum that exists. It’s science. It’s technology. But it’s also expression. It’s how we dress. It’s how we move. It’s how we talk. It’s everything to do with our culture and the way that people like Ruth are pushing that forward.”

Together, the work of both Michael Richards and Ruth E. Carter is emblematic of the importance of telling stories about race that are authentic, imaginative, and long-lasting.

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