Ropa Dope

Steven Montinar and Karla Arrucha (2019)

Ropa Dope was a collection and exhibition of wearable artworks that used the lens of fashion to address issues affecting Black and Hispanic communities. The works were developed by CMU Art undergraduates, Steven Montinar and Karla Arrucha, and staged at the Late Space gallery in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh in October 2019.

“Ropa Dope” plays off of the boxing term “rope-a-dope”, which describes the boxing tactic of pretending to be trapped against the ropes, goading an opponent to throw tiring ineffective punches. In Ropa Dope, Montinar and Arrucha “dodge the blows” of oppressive events and racist systems by repurposing wearable objects associated with these trauma, creating playful new forms of conceptual armor. These alternatives twist negative experiences into a positive ownership of obstructive histories. An additional play on words arises from the Spanish word for “clothes” (ropa) and a word from Black hip hop culture denoting “cool” (dope)

The Ropa Dope artworks and exhibition were made possible with support from the Frank-Ratchye Fund for Art @ the Frontier, Grant #2019-45. More images from this project can be found in this archive.

Discoteca 9 (2019, above). Discoteca 9 is an installation of three Zoot suits in mid-action of three dances: Zapateado, Stepping, and the Boogie Woogie. Zapateado (red) is a rhythmic percussive stomping Mexican dance style and the basis of many Latin dances. Stepping (yellow) is a percussive body dance involving hand clapping, stomping, and spoken word, originating from African Gumboot dancing. The Boogie Woogie (purple) is an improvised six-patterned beat couple dance done by both Black and Mexican communities in the 1940s (in the midst of the Zoot Suit Riots). The dancing figures bring the suit back to its original intention: “a killer-diller coat with a drape-shape, reat-pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell” (Malcolm X) to dance in, while simultaneously using these dances to “rope-a-dope” the aggression and violence towards Blacks and Mexicans in the United States.

7am on a Sunday / Sundial Disk Hat (2019); Time Restraint / Threaded Shackle Watch (2019, above). Slavery has harmed both Black and Mexican communities in the forms of the African slave trade and the human trafficking crisis in Mexico. Fixed into the shackles of Time Restraint is a pocket watch, and on the brim of 7am on a Sunday are the Roman numerals of a sundial. The element of time is a crucial component in plotting liberation. Those fortunate enough to escape captivity decide how long is long enough, what time is the best time to act, and how can life be bettered going forward from this point in time. Captivity can be literal, like being enslaved for agricultural work, or metaphorical, like the financial restraints that motivate immigration to the United States. Choosing to act leads to the reclamation of time which ultimately results in the emancipation of the self.

Opp Tical / Clear Lens Handcuff Frame Non-Prescription Glasses (2019, above). Institutional racism is discrimination directed through the practices and regulations of social and political systems. Opp Tical addresses institutional racism in both prison and health care by being as ornamental as the structures that fail to aid.

Swim or Nada / Life Jacket Styled Vest (2019); Selected Reflectivity / Clear Work Vest (2019); Soles of the River / Platform Work Boots (2019, above). The American Dream is the ideal that all people in the U.S. have an equal opportunity to become successful despite their ethnic or racial identity, yet those from minority communities and/or who come risking life to pursue asylum are met with backlash and obstacles. For instance, water is a repetitive physical barrier emblematic of bodily toll, material struggle, and oppression: masses of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, Mexicans trek through the unpredictable Rio Grande, Emmett Till was fatally beaten and tossed into a river, etc. This “dream” is nothing more than a dream: survival in America is dependent on visibility. When to stand up, stand out, sit down, or sit out can be a matter of life or death.