Kiss it Better: Joanna Black’s Senninbari Dress Project

Words by Bella Spencer
Art by Amelia Dearing
Edited by Shaina Ford

“Welcome to my wardrobe. I have been wearing and collecting these items since I was 15 and I’m only selling my collection now because my son is not a crossdresser and I don’t know where else it would go.”

This is the welcoming chant that Joanna Black repeats as her trendy customers walk through the doors of her treasure trove of a clothes boutique, tucked away on a picturesque street in Edinburgh. Each shopper is also greeted by a long white dress that hangs on a mannequin by the entrance. The garment is scattered by pink, red and purple lip shapes that were not sewn on by hand, but kissed on by lips. The dress is not for sale, but for politics.

The frock is the starring item of Joanna’s Senninbari Dress Project, her surrealist Dada-style protest against the current political climate in the UK and the US. A Senninbari is a Japanese item of clothing that originated in Okinawa in the seventeenth century. A piece of silk would be adorned with a thousand stitches, each sewn by a different woman. The completed fabric would be given to soldiers as an amulet and as a symbol of devotion to the women in his life.  Joanna has transferred the sentiment of the Senninbari to the gown. She will find a thousand women to put on their lipstick, give the dress a smooch and leave their lippy mark. If Trump is inaugurated Joanna will wear the dress before it is cut off and sewn, by men, to additional fabric patches kissed by women from around the world. This simple act demonstrates that men stand as allies to women and acknowledges that we are strongest when we act a whole, despite our differences. Joanna wants to remind Donald Trump and other misbehaving politicians of the Western world that they have the responsibility to respect and protect the people that they represent and govern.

Joanna was born in Scotland, where she was raised by her fiercely strong Polish mother. Her mother was a war orphan who moved to Scotland because it was the home country of her only pen pal. She single-handedly raising Joanna, her sister and her severely handicapped brother after her abusive husband returned to Poland. The plight of her mother adds to the horror that Joanna experienced as she watched the people of Scotland become victim of a series of horrific political movements they neither wanted nor voted for. Brexit, in particular, has bred an attitude of hate towards communities from different nationalities. Joanna is relieved that her mother was not alive to witness the result of the EU referendum and the vile treatment of the Polish migrants that have accompanied the decision.

In time like these, when politicians are ignorant to the opinions of minorities, Joanna has done as many have done before, turning to art to give a voice to the voiceless. Her dress is made of polyester – integrating a man-made aspect into her art to represent the men and women affected by Trumps’ election and Brexit. The unique open shape of each kiss leaves you with the notion that every pair of lips is saying something that can’t be heard- a concept that is increasingly relevant in today’s society full of seemingly deaf politicians and misrepresentation of communities in electoral results.

Joanna explained that she was also inspired by her shock and anger towards her discovery that 53% of white women voted for Trump, whereas only 4% of black women supported him. She believes that when a woman casts her vote she carries the responsibility of representing not just herself, but every other woman and girl. Therefore, no woman has the right to allow an irreverent and inappropriate man, who has been accused of 15 accounts of sexual assault and who makes no effort to disguise his misogynistic opinions, into a position of power. Reflecting on the majority of American presidents since women’s suffrage, she appears to be in the minority with that particular opinion.

The Senninbari dress project feels like a real celebration of femininity, in it’s most delicate, yet resilient form. Nevertheless, the overriding message of Joanna’s Senninbari dress is a plea for humanity- anybody in politics should use their power as force of good rather than approaching delicate situations with brute force and without empathy. It is time for politicians to start to listening to communities with quiet voices. If you’re a woman or girl who has something to say about Trump and Brexit head down to Miss Bizio Couture, on St Stephen St, Edinburgh, to impart your lip print and your wisdom on the Senninbari dress project. Let’s kiss the world better.

Joanna Black and her Senninbari Dress project

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