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Academy Award winning Hampton grad’s work on display in Williamsburg

More than 60 of Ruth E. Carter's garments are on display through December.
Photography Courtesy of SCAD
More than 60 of Ruth E. Carter's garments are on display through December.

Ruth E. Carter spoke with WHRO about her Afrofuturist inspiration and how Hampton and Williamsburg influenced her career in costume design.

Ruth E. Carter is a costume designer whose work has been seen in movies like Selma and over a dozen Spike Lee films. The Hampton University graduate’s work for both installments of the Black Panther movies made her the first African American woman to win multiple Academy Awards in any category.

Carter’s work is on display through December at Williamsburg’s Jamestown Settlement in an exhibition titled “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.”

WHRO spoke with Carter about her inspiration.

This interview was edited for time and clarity. 

Nick McNamara: Ruth, thank you so much for joining me.

Ruth E. Carter: Yeah, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

NM: Some people point to musical pioneers like Parliament and Funkadelic as early examples of the Afrofuturist aesthetic, and it’s carried on into modern times as seen in Beyonce’s Lemonade film and, of course, your work.

What was your first exposure to Afrofuturism? Where did you draw inspiration from?

RC: I think I've always been a fan of, as you said, the Parliament-Funkadelic. I can look back at Earth, Wind and Fire and the ‘70s groups that were imagining futuristic costumes. I would say those were very early inspirations, not for me to do costumes, but for me to imagine the future, Black people in the future and futuristic looks.

But, you know, I didn't start out this journey as a costume designer. I started out wanting to be in education and following in my family's footsteps going to Hampton (University). And it wasn't until late in my education that I transferred to theater arts to study costume design.

Once I did, I think all of those little umbrellas opened up all of those inspirations of growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts and being in summer programs like Upward Bound and Uhuru SaSa at Amherst College. All of those things started to come together for me and in those formative years, and I didn't even realize it was having such a great effect on me as an artist.

In addition to two Academy Awards, Carter's honors include a 2019 Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award and a 2020 Best Costume Design award from the International Press Academy.
Photography Courtesy of SCAD
In addition to two Academy Awards, Carter's honors include a 2019 Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award and a 2020 Best Costume Design award from the International Press Academy.

NM: You’re quoted as saying “our ancestors dreamed of Afrofuturism in Jamestown.” Can you elaborate on the poignancy of having your work exhibited at this site in Williamsburg?

RC: Well, I believe that our ancestors dreamed of a brighter future for themselves. They dreamed of freedom, they dreamed of having the right to walk and breathe like every other human being is entitled to on this earth.

And with that they wanted education, they wanted to be a part of the arts. The Harlem Renaissance is part of our dream. I do feel that when you are a costume designer working with filmmakers like Spike Lee and Ryan Coogler and Steven Spielberg even, as a Black woman, I am realizing the dream of my forefathers and mothers. So I believe that bringing my exhibitions to Jamestown-Yorktown is a part of realizing the dreams of our ancestors.

NM: Williamsburg isn’t far from your alma mater of Hampton University. I know you’ve lived by Spike Lee’s advice not to think about nominations and awards, but how important is it for you to have your work featured so close to where you spent your college days?

RC: Not only so close to where I spent my college days; also, I was a part of the living history program. I was a performer, a street performer, during my years in college.

To be at Jamestown-Yorktown in Williamsburg, to be close to the Williamsburg Foundation, to be close to my alma mater, Hampton – all of the things that created my whole reason for being. My whole way that I approached my work was all cultivated and was all nurtured, it was all mentored right there in that area.

I have so many fond memories of the historians that worked together with me to research characters that actually lived in Williamsburg. I have so much gratitude for Virginia and the Hampton experience, the Williamsburg experience, because it really did open me up to seeing these characters that I have brought to life in many of my films like Rosewood and School Daze and on and on.

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