a paper I delivered at the West Indian Literature Conference, University of Miami, October 5, 2018

 

abstract: In the Caribbean, textile practices such as sewing, embroidery, crochet and tatting have long served a double role within the gender education of female subjects. To be respectably feminine, one learns both to master at least one of these techniques and to acquire (or covet) the material objects so produced. Women are, further, the designated curators and caretakers of the textiles that enable and adorn domestic spaces: hand-towels, tablecloths, doilies, antimacassars and other such ornamental goods, as well as more prosaic items of haberdashery. Accordingly, these textile practices and their products are routinely denigrated or dismissed because of their apparent confinement within the spheres of the domestic, the feminine, and (as possessions and status symbols) the bourgeois. However, the work of textile artists such as Sonya Clark and Ebony Patterson and writers such as Erna Brodber and Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa confronts and deconstructs these reductive perceptions of both Caribbean women’s textile practices and their products as “mere craft.” This paper will examine their work in order to elucidate how these artists are critically re-situating textile art and artisanship as a locus of home-making, knowledge-making, memorializing, and subversion. From Patterson’s ornately adorned tribute to the 72 victims of the May 2010 Tivoli Gardens incursion to Clark’s painstaking deconstruction of a Confederate flag, from the material genealogy of Brodber’s sisal mat to the cultural recuperation of Llanos-Figueroa’s tapestries, these artists use textile and text to engage geoscapes from the domestic to the diasporic, timescapes from plantation slavery to late capitalism, traumas both local and global. Through their artistic and literary practice, audiences are challenged to re-think the origins and affordances of objects long overlooked, to see them anew as sites at which the emotional and epistemological labours of diaspora are rendered not only visible, but palpable.

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I’m going to begin with a sentence from the inimitable Patricia Saunders, the opening move of her 2016 essay on the work of Ebony G. Patterson. Saunders says,

One of the ways contemporary art has been an effective tool for social justice is through its capacity to entice viewers into a more considered mode of looking. In other words, it can revise the grammar of visual literacy away from its disciplining model toward a mode of visual engagement that encourages more critical ways of looking, allowing us to see the people we are looking at. [1]

In that essay, Saunders also makes a case for reading works of visual and literary art in conversation with each other, because “there is a long tradition of Caribbean artists and writers engaging one another and the critical issues of their time in a multiplicity of ways” (100). Saunders thus begins her discussion of Patterson’s work with a consideration of a poem by Olive Senior, and in this paper I am taking the permission – indeed, the injunction – Saunders has given us to think the literary and the visual together, and to pay attention to how, in both genres, Caribbean women artists are encouraging us “to do more than just look, in our disinterested way, without actually seeing” (102).

This paper (and whatever it will become) was born when I was reading Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s Daughters of the Stone (2009)

and found myself, as a textile practitioner, encountering its first main character, an enslaved African seamstress in the textile taller (workshop) on a plantation. Suddenly I was thinking about Caribbean women’s textile practices, and their products (with which many of us in this room are probably very familiar) in a new way, as having been (at least potentially) born in slavery.

(I confess that this had never occurred to me before in a concrete and urgent way.) Daughters of the Stone is a multi-generational family saga set in Puerto Rico and centering a family of Afro-Puerto-Rican women, beginning with Fela – gifted seamstress who is purchased precisely for her “magic fingers,” but is disciplined out of the artistry of which she’s capable and to which she’s inclined because it interrupts the uniformity required by the taller’s clients. Fela dies almost immediately after giving birth to her daughter, Mati – who eventually gains her freedom and becomes the textile artist that her mother was not allowed to be. In rendering Mati as an artist, Llanos-Figueroa goes beyond mere ekphrasis and stages for us the scenes of the making of Mati’s textiles:

The first tapestry she ever made was one of the Lady Oshun…. First, there was the young woman, naked from the waist up, wading into the river. Mati worked her loose hair using three strands of thread and making tiny knots to simulate the thick texture of the locks. The figure wore a string of seashells, and for this Mati sewed actual shells onto the heavy fabric, one connected to the next with twisted metallic threads….[For another tapestry] She had dyed the white thread until she got the color she wanted, experimenting with cinnamon, and allspice and honey, and mahogany and ebony powders, clay, and ink. Finally, she found just the right combination of dyes for his skin tone and spent hours, hundreds of stitches, on his hands. [2]

So we see Mati at work, encountering challenges and devising solutions to suit her aesthetic purposes – “the color she wanted,” “just the right combination of dyes.” Our sense of the textile produced derives directly from the account of its production.

Similarly, Erna Brodber’s 2014 minimalist family saga Nothing’s Mat

takes us, once again, to a scene of making: the unnamed narrator (later nicknamed “Princess”) goes from England to Jamaica as a teenager to do research into her family history for a sixth-form project. She stays with Cousin Nothing (a relative of her father’s), who teaches her to make a sisal mat (again, an object with which many of us are likely familiar) from scratch: reaping and processing the fibres of the ping wing macca:

We chopped this beneficent plant, releasing its various fronds…. We hit this poor plant to pulp with stones, then scraped off all its green with short knives until a stringy interior emerged. We worked until we had a pile of strings called sisal. We washed this and left them hanging from a line…. Strands were taken out and like the emperor’s craftsmen in just about any fairy tale, we set to work with small amounts of strands in the left hand which we curled using the first three fingers of that hand, flipping the wrist so that we made circles, then fastening the bunched curled strands at regular intervals with sisal threads from our needles propelled by the right hand. [3]

It’s significant that this process is initiated by Nothing saying to the I-narrator,

“So you want to know about your family line.”

“Yes,” I said and went for my diagram.

She glanced at it, put it on the table, and said, “Come.” (13)

and then the process described above begins. So we have not only a scene of making, but making as answer to “who are my people?” and “how do I represent the web of relations to which I belong?” The mat becomes the I-narrator’s family tree: both a record of her ancestry and an archive of the stories of her ancestors.

The I-narrator inherits the mat when Nothing dies; it serves her as an object of spiritual power (providing protection from a thief at one point, and from a would-be rapist at another), and (relatedly) as a comforting object: she bundles up her sleeping children in it. Whereas Llanos-Figueroa gives us the freewoman-daughter surpassing the humble “crafts” her enslaved mother had to make to achieve the “art” she makes for herself (we know it’s “art” because it hangs on her walls), Brodber exalts perhaps one of the most humble made objects in a Caribbean home – something we literally tread underfoot every day. It never ceases to be utilitarian and functional, but it is also (aesthetically) sublime: “You should have seen that mat and its evolution! What was unfolding before our eyes as we worked was amazing. It was all things bright and beautiful, and we were making it” (7).

As we are gathered here to think about mourning [4], I should say now that in Daughters of the Stone, Mati’s tapestries are portraits of people she has lost – Tía Josefa (who raised her), Cheo (her lost love) and the loa Oshun – whom she hasn’t lost (Oshun has come to her all her life), but who arguably stands in for her mother Fela, whom she never knew. (Fela appears earlier in a beautiful yellow dress of her own design, and yellow is Oshun’s colour.) In Nothing’s Mat, the mat contains not only genealogy and ancestral stories but also ancestral pain, which the I-narrator’s daughter Clarise feels, and suffers from, when she touches certain parts of it (102).

So Llanos-Figueroa and Brodber both offer insistent portraits of Caribbean women as textile practitioners (with emphasis on the practice) creating in often-ignored or overlooked modes as response to personal and collective loss. These textiles are objects but they are also acts – of memorialization and, perhaps, of remediation, not just testifying to the loss but tending to the wound it creates. (In particular, the description of Mati’s work on her textiles – the effort she expends to arrive at the dye that will produce the exactly right colour for Cheo’s skin – suggests caretaking directed toward the lost one, or toward their memory, which is the same thing.)

Sonya Clark is a contemporary Caribbean-American artist who works extensively (although not exclusively) with textiles. I’m thinking here about a few of her works – “Kente Flag, Worn,” which materially manifests (through its design, its colour and its technique) her transnational, diasporic origin story and which Clark turns into a garment – an adornment – for people (50 African-American women, whom she engaged in dialogue as they were being photographed wearing the Kente Flag). I’m thinking of her McHardy Tartan – 15 feet of cloth that she wove in the Scottish tartan pattern that belongs to one ancestral line of her family, which is woven out of bagasse (sugarcane trash). She describes this project as “bringing materiality and image together” – and again, she puts her textile on people, photographing her family assembled around and under it. Clark herself (when she talks about this project) foregrounds the scene of making at the level of materials, and foregrounds relation through the object’s interaction with her family. (Here we might be reminded of Brodber’s Princess wrapping her children in the mat.)

But Clark’s “mourning” piece is “Unraveling” (2015)

 a response to violence against black bodies in the US. I want to note her comment on the project’s first iteration: “But it wasn’t enough…. What needed to happen was those conversations.” So instead of presenting the “finished” (that is, deconstructed) object, she makes a public, cooperative performance of the deconstruction of the object. Llanos-Figueroa and Brodber give us scenes of making in order to enjoin us to actually see what we are looking at (in Saunders’ terms) when we look at textiles, to engage with them as not merely the products of domestic, feminized labour (or leisure) but as aesthetic objects worthy of our attention and as practices of mourning and memorialization. Clark gives us a scene of unmaking as mourning practice, symbolically deconstructing a powerful and fraught object – an object that, like Nothing’s mat, can generate pain in the Black people who encounter it (although through a very different mechanism). In the name of lost relations (writ large), Clark takes something putatively untouchable – putatively not hers/not ours – and not only (like Bree Newsome at the South Carolina state house in 2015) takes it down from its lofty heights, but shows it up by stripping it down. Humiliating it. Unmaking it.

Clark’s account of the work foregrounds relationality not only in the origins of the piece (Black folks were getting shot) but in its performance: she emphasizes the conversations that happen, that she is seeking, suggesting that this is an open-hearted practice that can connect perhaps unlikely interlocutors. But it would, I think, be a mistake to ignore the aspect of this work that is an assertion of the maker’s power over the made thing (which, as venerated symbol, has perhaps gotten ideas above its station). Reminiscent of that joke in which the mother tells her child, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out,” Clark is asserting that textile practitioners create objects that define and inhabit us in powerful ways, and that those same objects can be unmade and remade using the knowledge, skill and care (because to deconstruct a textile is an incredibly careful, painstaking process) that produced them. (Clark’s “Unraveling” produces an effect very different from burning the flag, or slashing it to ribbons.) It’s also worth asking whether the careful unraveling of the flag is Clark’s act of caretaking, directed at the victims of white supremacy, the analogue of Mati’s careful labours in creating the portraits of her lost loved ones.

Ebony G. Patterson’s “the of 72 project” – which she created in response to the killing of 72 men and 1 woman during the Tivoli Gardens incursion of 2010 – had a place in this paper when I conceived it, and clearly speaks to my other texts in terms of its status as a memorial and mourning object and its relational work, summoning us into relation with the 72 (or 73) whom we might otherwise not actually see. It also aligns with Brodber’s text in that it renders something mundane (the bandanna) into an aesthetic object that demands our attention (through a practice of excess, piling on bling, gilt, sequins, flowers, embroidery, buttons – exactly the kind of “crafty” embellishment that is easily dismissed as trite, kitschy and feminine, and in some cases using embellishment reminiscent of household décor, such as doilies). Patterson’s pieces are also, arguably, rendered as objects of spiritual power in the way that they visually evoke religious icons.

Where Patterson does not easily fit with my archive for this paper is in the fact that she presents us with the finished object and doesn’t foreground its process or the scene or conditions of its making (except, perhaps, obliquely, in the domestic-décor motifs? or is the aesthetic of excess itself the processual gesture?). I’m therefore going to close by inviting the collective wisdom in the room, in the Q&A, to help me think Patterson in relation to my other texts.

Thank you.

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Notes

[1] Patricia Joan Saunders. “Gardening in the Garrisons, You Never Know What You Will Find: (Un)Visibility in the Works of Ebony G. Patterson.” Feminist Studies 42.1 (2016): 98. Hereafter cited in the text.

[2] Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa. Daughters of the Stone. St. Martin’s Press, 2009: 119-21. Hereafter cited in the text.

[3] Erna Brodber. Nothing’s Mat. University of the West Indies Press, 2014: 13-14. Hereafter cited in the text.

[4] The title of the panel was “Embodied Mourning.”

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