Celebrating Female Contemporary Artists during African American History Month
There have been several, but not enough, conversations around craft-practitioners who are using textiles in many forms and shapes. Practitioners of today understand that multiple histories have existed in the same space, and recognizing this space becomes an essential part of making, using, or being inspired by fiber. American historian, Sharon Patton, argues that she wants people to learn about not just “seeing black people as artists.” Instead, Patton wants readers to analyze how art evolves through the diversity of culture, a culture “belonging to African diaspora.” Taking Patton’s approach as a critical starting point, this research highlights the contributions of four female craft-practitioners.
The relevance of learning about the contemporary amongst the pre-existing retrospectives during African American History Month is that it not only honors the artists of today but also addresses the significance of the past through them. As African American History Month gains momentum, I chose to focus on Sonya Clark, Tschabalala Self, Xenobia Bailey, and Diedre Brown. I re-emphasize on the values of Textile Arts Center as the women written about celebrate broader themes of diversity, gender, activism, technology, and particularly the traditions of making by hand.
Sonya Clark: Performing Cultural Identity
To begin to trace the influences on American art, I examine Sonya Clark’s work which interacts with the complexities of cultural identity. Born in Washington D.C., artist, professor, writer and scholar, Clark embraces her parents’ Trinidadian and Jamaican roots. On her website and in several pieces of literature, Clark reminisces about her maternal grandmother, a professional tailor who taught her the importance of hand-craftsmanship. She adds that her grandmother put the idea of “storytelling” and the “text in textiles at a very young age.”
Anthropologists argue that cultural identity plays a central role in a person’s making practices, but also forms part of an equally bigger community’s culture. From beaded prayers, communicatools to the kente flag and hair craft project, Clark’s work draws from “communal adornment practices” in the past, and aims to “empower communities.”
Some of Clark’s current exhibitions include Unraveling and Monumental Cloth, which is on view through July, 2018 at Mead Art Museum, Amherst. In one of the events at Mead Art Museum, Clark performs the unravelling of the Confederate battle flag. She engages with people during her process of unravelling tightly woven threads, and by doing so, paves way to new legacies.
To take it further, in the Youtube series called The Art Assignment, Clark’s work is described to be “measuring histories.” Clark states that she uses hair as a self portrait, and that “it’s not just a self-portrait, but is also a portrait of long, long, long legacies.” Legacy and the deconstruction of time weaves a metaphor for making with hand. When asked about the meaning of cultural history, Clark advises the new craft practitioners to “use materials that you are most comfortable with, and use it for a long time, and relate it to your own personal history.” This dialogue between the self and the community is explored through a different lens by artist, Tschabalala Self.
Tschabalala Self: Cultural Niche
Born in Harlem, the New Haven based mixed media artist, Tschabalala Self doesn’t just break stereotypes associated with black feminine identity, but also attempts to “provide alternative, and perhaps fictional explanations for the voyeuristic tendencies towards the gendered and racialized body; a body which is both exalted and abject.” She states that her fantasies and attitudes surround the black body in such a way that they create a “cultural niche” which she aims to create, re-create, and distort through her making practice.
Her process of making involves taking personal scraps of fabric, her own finished and unfinished oil paintings from previous years, and pieces of fabric scraps from Africa which were collected by her mother. In this manner, Self focuses on the experience of self-actualization and making by acknowledging perceptions of bodies constantly in flux.
She takes an anthropological approach to art when she jots down conversations in New York subways, and her own reflections of events around her. This patchwork of mixed-methodologies is also observed when she views dress on a body as an expression of identity but also uses fabric from dresses which have exchanged several hands. Like artist, Sonya Clark, Self’s practice takes place in the continuum of collaboration.
By exhibiting in spaces where artists like Lyle Ashton Harris have exhibited in the past, Self participates in developing a new way of thinking in the contemporary. She adds that she wants her characters to “have problems that are outside of their gender or race, problems that are universal: heartbreak, grief, loss, desire. And also joys, pleasures, excitement.” At a time, when several artists depict a female body as a binary or in two dimensions, Self keeps building upon existing multiple dimensions.
Diedre Brown: I Am an Artist
New York based Diedre Brown enjoys working at the “intersection of visual art, storytelling, and science.” She has also been Textile Arts Center’s Work in Progress resident in 2017. Her art is almost always supported with strong scientific research and is in tune with a human body’s circadian rhythms. When asked about what the role of art is in her life, Brown states that:
For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in science and art. Mostly, I think this because they both involve learning through experimentation to analyze phenomena and ideas. I’m a kinesthetic learner, so I have always learned through dissection of material components, making, and heavy reliance on all my senses. Through this process, art became the way of expressing what I learned and experienced. Whatever the medium I choose to use, art is my storytelling device.
Taking art as a storytelling device, Brown analyzes materials from a chemical or a technical perspective. With an aspiration to work with historical patterns, representative transformations and translations, and new technologies — like robotically and genetically engineered textiles, Brown finds materials to be fascinating!
Having worked with natural fibers and structures, Brown explains that:
Whether natural or designed, all experiences are distinguished by their material components. I often work with fibers and textiles because they mimic forms and structures found in nature, and they are ubiquitous — they are the only material we surround ourselves with every minute daily. Our bodies are programmed with an infinite amount of diverse sensory data about fibers and textiles. This sensory relationship allows one to recall the characteristics and properties of a fiber upon hearing its name.
Although Brown goes into the details of the material culture of fiber and textiles, her ideology behind her making choices is not based on “individual legacies” and are instead driven by “detailed bibliographies.” When asked what Black History Month means to her, she asserts that:
Growing up in a bi-racial, multi-ethnic family, differing cultures and philosophies have always been respected no matter the age, gender, race, or creed of their source. However, the canon of western history has not always been so all encompassing. The importance of Black History Month — and all cultural heritage months — is that it works to make history inclusive of the achievements of all people, equally. Our present and our future are constructed from the multilayered contributions of all the world’s people regardless of the adjectives used to describe them. To not recognize this fact furthers the belief in hard polarities. I long for the day when it is enough to say, “I am an artist,” and not have my accomplishments viewed or separated by the fact that I am a bi-racial woman.
Xenobia Bailey: Crafting Folk Art
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Xenobia Bailey studied ethno-musicology at the University of Washington, and often uses music’s abstract quality to create contemporary art.
By drawing from highly traditional African American motifs, Bailey translates round motifs in kente cloth into vibrant crocheted patterns. She is often inspired by ethnically grounded global fiber arts, healing practices, and the African American funk aesthetic. Recently, Bailey was a resident at MAD museum where she allowed visitors to adorn her creations and get a total experience of what it means to produce something of personal value and respect.
Her purpose is to “inspire African Americans to culturally re-create themselves and [to] spread the idea of cultural re-creation and personal adornment.. and have this way of being to become a way of everyday life.”
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