Work by Critical Race Studies Artists-in-Residence on Display at MSU Union Art Gallery

The work of Dr. Elka M. Stevens, 2021-2022 Artist-in-Residence: Critical Race Studies, is now on display through Friday, June 10, at the MSU Union Art Gallery.

Through this exhibit, titled 38.8%: Visualizing Racial Identity in Search of Selfhood and Others, Stevens interrogates ideas of race, ethnicity, nationality, genetics, and their role in identity. Although many aspects of identity are unalterable and unseen, clothing and accessories allow individuals and groups to communicate messages about themselves, their cultures, activities, events, locations, employment, and so forth.

Dr. Elka M. Stevens

Beginning from this concept of visual identity, Stevens uses textiles and clothing as a platform to present ideas about race, displaying a mini-collection of stylized, wearable garments for plus-size women as well as selected artifacts. Featured garments and accessories include dresses, skirts, and hats. Also included are quilts and blankets that narrate the social and physical attributes of race and reflect on beliefs about heritage. The exhibition engages both the viewer and wearer in a dialogue about race that explores how individuals wear their identities.

The collection uses a range of techniques and methodologies to generate this dialogue. The works in 38.8% incorporate sewing techniques, such as embroidery and quilting. Additionally, surface design techniques weave aspects of genealogy research and DNA testing into the collection. Archival research and imagery further contribute to the works, through motifs such as family charts that document and present wearable family histories and maps. 

A patterned quilt hangs in the foreground, another hangs in the background.
Two quilts featured in Elka Steven’s 38.8%: Visualizing Racial Identity in Search of Selfhood and Others exhibit.

Original surface designs are featured throughout the exhibition. Color, along with other elements of design and their guiding principles, brings attention to an articulated genetic makeup. Ultimately, 38.8% is a re-presentation of a lived experience through worn and displayed objects. 

As part of the exhibit, a special prize is being awarded to the person who correctly guesses the number of yards of yarn that Stevens used to create the “Afro Puffs II” blanket that is part of the 38.8% exhibit. The person who guesses the closest total amount, not exceeding the total yardage, will receive a prize. The contest closes on June 10. For more information, visit the Elka Stevens website.

A pattered dress on a mannequin in front of a jeweled backdrop.
One of the wearable dresses featured in Elka Steven’s 38.8% exhibit and the “Afro Puffs II” blanket that the public is being asked to guess the number of yards of yarn that were used to create the blanket.

Stevens is an Associate Professor, Fashion Design Program Coordinator, and Textiles Collection Curator in Howard University’s Art Department. Her scholarly interests intersect at the junction of visual and material culture, international trade, and identity. 

As an interdisciplinary scholar and artist, Stevens uses textiles and clothing as a lens of analysis, inspiration, and media for her written and creative works. Her current research projects examine media and design pedagogy, Black designers, impression management, and the digitization of a historic costume collection. Her mixed media pieces explore issues of identity, globalization, social justice, and repurposing.

In addition to her artistic work, Stevens has taught for more than 25 years in the United States and Africa. Her courses cover subjects from fashion, textiles, international trade, African American appearance, clothing history, entrepreneurship, and gender.

A mannequin wearing a patterned hat, shirt, and skirt holds a patterned bag.
An outfit and bag displayed in Elka Steven’s 38.8%: Visualizing Racial Identity in Search of Selfhood and Others exhibit.

Stevens has worked as a product development specialist, a micro-enterprise trainer for the Peace Corps, and a technology trainer in Ghana. She also has worked as a creative and marketing consultant for businesses in the United States and Ghana. Her collaborative endeavors explore relationships between artists, ideas, media, and technologies.

In addition to extensive teaching, research, and entrepreneurial endeavors, Stevens has maintained membership in various service, academic, and professional organizations. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

The MSU artist in residency in Critical Race Studies is made possible thanks to generous support from the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU), the MSU College of Arts & Letters, and the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.