Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan arrives for our coffee looking every inch the superstar artist in dark sunglasses, billowing trousers and a striking hoodie decorated in branded badges.
His debut UK solo exhibition, In Plain Sight, opened at Marian Goodman Gallery, London in September: a beautiful, complex array of paintings, sculptures, collages and performances exploring the lives of overlooked historical figures of African heritage – a body of work that forms part of Strachan’s ongoing project, The Encyclopedia of Invisibility. Visitors queued outside the gallery for hours. One critic described it as “daunting as well as uplifting, risky and theatrical”, giving the show five stars, while another admitted crying through her face mask. My own experience was similarly visceral, the combination of soulful voices and historical injustice causing a moment of pause more than once during my Covid-safe allotted viewing hour.
But when we meet, I discover that Tavares Strachan the artist – who has shown several times at Venice Biennale and accrued accolades including artist in residence at the Getty Research Institute (2019-2020) and the Tiffany Foundation Grant (2008) – is also a talented and ambitious fashion designer. The whole clothing ensemble he is wearing today is from BASEC, his own label.
Not only that, but BASEC (Bahamas Air and Sea Exploration Center) is the space agency conceived by Strachan in 2008 after he returned from training as a cosmonaut at the Yuri Gagarin Training Center in Star City, Russia. Now based between Nassau and New York, Strachan conceived the Bahamian community project to increase young people’s access to science and technology through rocket launches, experiments and a programme of visiting scientists. “It started off as a set of questions about a particular sort of isolation that comes from being on an island,” he explains. “What does [this experience] do to either encourage or discourage creative young people?”
The fashion label emerged from conversations with his mother, who suggested the best route to engage young people in exploration would be through clothing. “When you’re from this small, ‘off to the side’ place, how do you begin to develop creative traditions that serve the next generation?” was the question he wanted to answer. “I wasn’t doing it because it was a good idea or because it was going to make money; it was actually out of necessity.”
Nothing about the clothes suggests they are “essentials”; the pieces present themselves as collectors items, rather than wardrobe fixtures. There are bomber jackets ($1,800-$2,000) made by Strachan’s mother Ella and embroidered with patches communicating the specific mission goals of BASEC. Each arrives in a hand-assembled BASEC box signed by the artist, along with DIY instructions for science experiments, and all proceeds go into the development of teaching programmes, including sewing and design courses. Hoodies ($650) come with custom patches and pins and are emblazoned with some of the same “forgotten” faces seen at the In Plain Sight exhibition, such as Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, a US Air Force officer and the first African-American astronaut.
All BASEC collections centre sustainability through local sourcing and local production, and a new jumpsuit ($1,800) will have a lifetime guarantee in a bid to reduce waste. Strachan cites constructivism as influencing his environmental ethos: a need to design within limitations. “If we can ultimately do that effectively, I think things will be greener, I think the consumer will be closer, I think the ideas will serve the end user better,” he says.
He’s dismissive of separating his art from this project. “No one element is more important than the other… For me, this is a very west African way of approaching experience: you have poetry, you have spirituality, you have food. You have all of it in one.” He is especially interested in the relationship between fashion and art. “I am fighting against a hierarchy that says one thing is better than the other,” he continues. “It’s not my business to organise it – it’s my business to scramble it.”