Afrofuturistic conversation with Ruth E. Carter

Apr 04, 2022

On the morning of March 31, The Taubman Museum of Art had a sitdown with Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter about the beauty of representation in art and being able to embody the Afrofuture through storytelling.

Ruth E. Carter has an exhibition on view at The Taubman showcasing her work spanning over 30 years in Hollywood. It features work she did in groundbreaking movies such as “Do The Right Thing,” “Amastad,” and “The Black Panther.”

Through all of Carter’s work, Afrofuturism is what ties all of it together. Carter realized that theater was her niche while attending Hampton University studying costume design.

Cindy Peterson, executive director of The Taubman Museum, led the conversation with Carter by asking her to provide her definition of Afrofuturism.

“I feel like this happened organically because from the start we were making movies that had representation and Afrofuture does have something to do with representation,” Carter said. “During the time of ‘Do The Right Thing’ and ‘School Daze,’ we were actually projecting image on screen that we didn’t get to see as much. So when I feel like I’m on set working with directors like Spike Lee, I’m embodying Afrofuture in storytelling and they are encouraging the Afrofuture in the direction because they’re always thinking about how the image of the people will impact us for the future."

Carter also stated that Afrofuture is about technology because it has been used to bring everything together in a futuristic model.

Peterson asked Carter if it was a conscious decision to lift up Black voices via storytelling and what stories she would like to help tell next.

“I tell the director's vision after I get the script, I read it and I hope to be inspired and excited by the script because the storytelling does come from the writer and the director and what we try to do is infuse authenticity as well as technology. So you’re always thinking about what can I do next time. You know, what will this new story that I’m giving bring to the table and how can I project that image in a real forward thinking way?” Carter said.

The Taubman Museum allowed students and faculty from around the country to send in questions for the renowned storyteller, who expresses such stories through her costume designs.

A student from Allen University in Columbia asked: “When you were accepted into college, did you see yourself where you are now?”

Carter responded: “Well, I don’t think anybody really knows when they apply to college if that’s going to be the one thing that they end up doing ... 35 years later, 60 movies later, but you are hopeful because I started off like I said as an education major. I was going to be a teacher and I discovered while at Hampton that I could be a costume designer and that's what I wanted to pursue, so it was a step-by-step process.”

As a trailblazer in various ways, Carter has earned more than 25 nominations and won more than 30 national and international awards for her work. She is the first African American to win an Academy Award for costume design. She is also the first recipient of the Vanguard Award for costume design presented by the NAACP Image Awards.

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