Vivid visions rewrite history of America in joyous fashion

 

The Pony Express is a luxuriant painting by Kermit Oliver, the Texan postal worker who has been quietly designing scarves for Hermès since 1980.

The image shows a pioneer in a silver-blue suit straddling a glossy horse, surrounded by the iconography of South Western American art: cacti, and silver, and arid desert. A group of Native Americans are positioned above the white man who has conquered their land, and yet they are marginalised, pushed to the far-corner of the painting, almost out of sight.

The Pony Express was in fact a real postal service that existed briefly from 1860-1, necessitated by the approaching Civil War. Relays of men on horseback would ride from Missouri to California. Quickly replaced by the completed telegraph system, The Pony Express nevertheless captured the popular imagination, conjuring a mythic American past based on risk and ruggedness.

While Oliver seems to be referring wryly to his thirty year career sorting letters, the mythic component of his own vision is strong and sincere. As a student at Texas Southern University in the 1960s, he was influenced by Jung’s Symbols of Transformation. His designs, which are Fed-Exed to Paris on completion and meticulously transferred onto silk, consist of “symbolic realism.” Painstaking technique is combined with historical allegory.

Les Amériques shows Christopher Columbus towering over a brilliant blue ocean, framed by kitsch – sometimes cartoonish – images of nature: a flamingo, a monkey stealing an apple, and some very Bosch-like fruit and vegetables.

The colours are vivid and busy enough to distract from the content of these imperialist narratives; the international fashion elite do not want images of massacre, rape, and death by disease draped around their necks nor protecting their bouffants from the elements. However, there is a subtle sense of rebellion in these joyous, shopper-friendly designs.

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