In the 1977 essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury,’ Audre Lorde writes to empower and embolden women to share their experiences, but the essay is applicable to anybody who doubts the impact or the importance of art. “We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared,” she writes, “And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.”
Art is a language, and we use it to tell our stories and represent our individuality; it also helps us find common ground and understand each other, which is one step toward actually making progress. Joan Gaither, John Sims, and Olivia Robinson—the three artists in “Evidence: Identity Through Fiber Art,” at Creative Alliance through June 6—use quilting, historically a story-telling tool, and other fiber-based practices in art that bring up important and instructive conversations about race in America.
Of these three artists, Gaither uses quilting in the most intimate way. Clustered near the back of the gallery is a series of quilts that act like self-portraits of the artist, along with a dozen other quilts from her “Decades” series that chronicle each decade of Gaither’s life so far, from the 1940s on. The quilts are an explosion and exploration of memories and personal nostalgia, mixing in pop culture and political references. With stuffed animals and dolls, fake flowers, and chains, the quilts act more like terrain maps of memory than super-structured or linear story quilts. The ones that represent Gaither’s earlier years use mostly white and cream colors, satin and lace textures, with pearlescent beads and scraps of fabric with the ABCs on them.
But as the decades progress, the quilts become more colorful and lively, combining various patterns and photos of the artist and her family members and others who’ve influenced her directly or indirectly: MLK, the Black Panthers, local artists Joyce Scott and Leslie King Hammond (among many others). Several of the quilts are hung so high that you inevitably miss things, which is unfortunate, but there’s still plenty to take in.
Snippets of text like “Mama was called colored” and “My birth certificate reads Negro” pop out as poignant reminders of the struggles that black people face from birth. In the center of a quilt that represents the 1950s is a round frame shape with two small white gloves sewn on to seem like they’re gripping the frame, in which the words “COLORED,” “NEGRO,” “red bone,” and “banana brown” appear.
In the ’90s piece, the words “Finding Myself,” “Garden Epiphany,” “Now African American,” and “Signifier of Identity” pop up in the quilt’s corners. Despite the heavy burden of finding one’s identity under white supremacy, Gaither’s pieces feel overwhelmingly victorious and self-affirming. It’s interesting (and impressive), too, that most of these quilts were made in the last couple of years, rather than over a longer span of time. As time passes, memory changes, pain softens, and joy dulls. Still, her works celebrate this quest for identity, while solemnly remembering people such as Medgar Evers and Emmett Till; their names appear at least a couple of times in these quilts. Evers’ death was a political assassination, but Till’s was, too—he was killed just because he was black—and this shows how both were victims of racist, institutional violence.
John Sims’ works feel slightly louder and angrier, which is a perfectly reasonable response to structural inequality. Sims appropriates various symbols and changes them slightly. In ‘AfroConfederate Flag,’ he hangs a Confederate flag on the wall, but instead of red, white, and blue, it has the Black Liberation colors of red, green, and black. It’s a simple and smart way to fuck with the notion of deluded patriotism. But the piece right next to it, ‘The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag,’ is more dramatic: A Confederate flag hangs limp from a noose attached to the wall, effectively “hanging” white supremacy.
Many of Sims’ pieces in the show come from bigger projects, and that affects how we view and interpret this work. Some of the pieces are puzzling, such as ‘All Knots Up to 8 Crossings,’ which displays 36 pieces of knotted rope in four neat rows. It feels vaguely violent but it’s uncertain what it’s saying. In his statement, Sims talks about finding the intersections among art, mathematics, and politics, but that gets fuzzy without much context. Still, his two big quilt pieces, ‘African Quilt’ and ‘The Political MathArtist,’ are striking and interesting. In ‘African Quilt,’ squares of patterned fabrics alternate with black squares, divorcing the patterns from their original context and function, effectively abstracting them. It’s like white Europeans colonizing Africa and trafficking millions of people into the slave trade, ripping them from their worlds and stripping their identities. With ‘The Political MathArtist’ Sims depicts a pixelated, blocky “revolutionary”-style portrait of what appears to be the artist, and, with its monumental feeling and black-and-red color scheme, evokes the way we remember Che Guevara on cheap posters and T-shirts belonging to kids we knew in high school. Art and revolution might try to fight oppressive systems, but they still get absorbed by capitalism and consumerism.
Olivia Robinson’s works in “Evidence” are also helpful in understanding one aspect of institutional racism that is often completely ignored, in two pieces that address redlining in Baltimore. In ‘Near and Far Enemies: Shade,’ two long rows of silhouetted, leafless trees of varying sizes (the tallest in the middle, the left and right sides tapering down) line the top and bottom edges of white fabric. In the middle, there’s a broken-up map of parts of Baltimore. A cluster in the middle of these mapped areas are dyed red, surrounded by some sections that are yellow, then blue areas, then some green. In a sequence, tiny bead-size LED lights act like pins on the map, and correspond to specific trees. The green and blue areas go to the bigger trees that would offer more shade, while the yellow and red ones correspond to the stubbier (or absent) trees.
Next to this piece, an enlarged print on fabric of a map key from the 1930s, annotated by Robinson, helps to explain that the green and blue areas were “first” and “second” grade, meaning that these areas were safe, or, frankly, more white, whereas yellow veered into “declining” areas and red, where African-Americans lived in older houses in the city, was considered “hazardous.” In her notes on this key, Robinson explains that she only learned about redlining fairly recently at a conference by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, and she raises an important point: “I am white (in case that wasn’t obvious) and as I learn more about history, I learn more about histories that white people and white culture have purposefully tried to erase.”
It’s crucial to question what we think we know. If we all believed what our high school history books taught us, we’d think it’s all good and everyone is equal now because the civil rights movement happened. Those books fail us by not even hinting at the term institutional racism, or the structures of inequality that continue to shape the world we live in. But art can be instructive in ways that history can’t be. Based in fact, history can tell the stories of the individuals who lived through it, but artists can help us interpret and feel the impact of these stories. We can unlearn and relearn through art and poetry, which, as Audre Lorde says, “is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”