Unidentified Woman: A New Contemporary Art Exhibit at Historic Northampton

Jodi Colella couldn’t be more prescient. When the Somerville based artist conceived of her new exhibit, Unidentified Woman, currently on display at Historic Northampton, she had no idea hats would be the new symbol of feminist resistance. Yet Colella was nevertheless drawn to the collection of hats in the museum’s collection, and created sculptural interpretations of archival headwear that serve as both personal and ideological expressions of her experience as a woman. The hats are displayed along with photographs, daguerreotypes, and prints of anonymous women Colella found in flea markets and altered with her distinctive stitchwork. The headwear and images create a cohesive, powerful, and strikingly beautiful exhibit, one that raises important questions about the position of women in society, both historically and today.

Colella’s work with Historic Northampton began when she responded to the museum’s call to contemporary artists in January 2016. Historic Northampton is in its fourth year of hosting monthly exhibits featuring contemporary artwork inspired by local history. The call appealed to Colella who notes “how meaningful it is to take history from the past and bring it to the contemporary.” She visited the museum and was impressed by the depth of the collection. Kiki Smith, President of Historic Northampton’s Board of Trustees and professor in the Theatre Department at Smith, gave Colella a tour of the collection and Marie Panik, the museum manager, helped Colella gather a collection of hats that spoke to the artist. Colella then took photographs of the hats to bring back to her Somerville studio.

“For me, it was learning about the poke bonnet and the sunbonnet,” Colella describes, noting that both hats have “these long brims. They’re designed so you can’t see the woman’s face unless you get straight in front of her and look in. There’s a lot of literature on how that not only limited vision but also limited opportunity and the ability to make contact and work.” Colella characterizes her body of work as primarily occupied with human relationships, “the impulse to belong, and the innate loneliness of just being human.” As she worked with Historic Northampton’s headwear collection, she found herself reflecting on the particular dilemma of being a woman, struggling to be visible in a time when social dictates deliberately obscured your vision.

Once Colella’s initial proposal was approved, she couldn’t help but go back to Historic Northampton’s archives, and “start poking around for fun.” Her playful poking unearthed another artistic goldmine, the museum’s daguerreotype collection. As she perused the collection, “I noticed that for most men all the details were present. Who they were, where they worked, where they were born… And for many women, they had no details. They were labeled ‘unidentified woman.’ So that just kind of stuck with me.” Colella began scouring fleamarkets for her own daguerreotypes, as well as photographs and prints of “unidentified women.” Using a variety of threads and fibers, Colella transformed the images with her dynamic stitchwork. As Colella describes, “by altering them with stitches, I’m giving them more of an individual expression. I’m trying to pull out what I see in them.”

Wallflower (crochet, glass beads & marbles, mixed fibers, buckram, prosthetic eye). Photograph provided by the artist

Grouped together at Historic Northampton’s exhibit, the headwear, daguerreotypes, and other images, are simultaneously gorgeous and discomfiting. The headwear inspired sculpture Wallflower, designed to entirely cover the head, presents curling petals of pale gold and green framing a large, crocheted center; multicolored marbles nest within the center, drawing the viewer in to explore their depth and color. Yet in the middle of this pleasing tableau, Colella has placed a prosthetic eye so realistic the viewer instinctively looks away. The effect is immersive and illuminating. Through this sculpture, Colella has revealed a fundamental duality of womanhood, the condition of being highly visible yet rendered invisible by lack of opportunity and objectification. By adding the prosthetic eye, Colella has presented an alternative; while she may be anonymous, she is still present and has a view of the world.

Gardener (found photograph, artificial turf, frame).  Photograph provided by the artist

Similarly, Colella’s altered photograph Gardener presents a woman whose entire image has been stitched over with artificial turf. Colella’s stitching renders the woman completely invisible; no traces of her personal details, from the pattern of her dress to the features of her face, remain on view. Yet the vivid green artificial turf has made this previously anonymous woman impossible to miss. Through Colella’s stitchwork, she has been transformed into a luminous being.

While Colella’s headwear inspired pieces are first and foremost sculptures, they are also sculptures that can actually be worn on the head, and at the exhibit’s opening reception on March 10, three of the pieces, including Wallflower, were being modeled by students from one of Kiki Smith’s classes in costume design at Smith College. Poke, another standout from the show, was modeled by student Nicole Detatorre. This poke bonnet inspired piece is stitched with layers of whimsical patches, from Girl Scout badges to butterflies. Similar to Wallflower, the intricate details and array of materials on display in Poke are engaging and immersive for the viewer. Yet Delatorre, whose entire face was covered up to her eyes, had a limited view of her own headwear and relied on exhibit visitors to describe the dazzling array.

In Poke, the viewer finds several more dualities. The extravagant headwear draws people in, yet Delatorre is obscured. Delatorre wears the hat, but doesn’t own its splendor. And finally, while the poke bonnet’s design limits vision, Colella has used her deliberate exaggeration of the form to expand her artistic vision, as well as the vision and understanding of those interacting with the piece.

This again brings us back to the meaning of hats in the current moment, as Colella’s colleague, Anne LaPrade Seuthe, noted at the show’s opening reception. “The pussyhat,” she observed, “has become emblematic of resistance,” against what many see as a frightening, misogynistic moment in modern history. Pondering the meaning of her work in today’s climate, Colella herself writes:

A year ago when proposing, my thoughts were about the history of societal oppressions for women, where it was difficult for them to express themselves as individuals, or find their voice.

A year later, in our current state, I feel that this show discusses these themes in terms of history from a collection that encompasses a Victorian time period to present…

BUT also performs as a kind of historic intervention that creates agency and allows for the possibility of self-identification for the unidentified woman in question.

TODAY… women have empowered their voice with organized #resist movements, calling themselves to action in protest, engaging with public offices and more in the service of being heard loud and clear.

The importance of art in the service of these goals is exemplified in Colella’s work. Unidentified Woman presents a beautiful, compelling body of work that inspires viewers to think, act, create, and be heard.


Unidentified Woman will be on exhibit at Historic Northampton, 46 Bridge Street, Northampton, from March 10 - April 9, 2017. On Sunday, April 2, at 2:00, Dr. Margaret Bruzelius, Associate Dean at Smith College, will present The Final Flourish: The Rhetoric of the Hat, a lecture on the meaning of hats in films from the 1930s onward.