Scenes of (Un)Making: Caribbean Women’s Textile/Textual Practice

• February 2021

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 overlooked because of their apparent confinement within the spheres of the domestic and the feminine. However, the work of writers such as Erna Brodber and Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa and textile artists such as Sonya Clark confronts and deconstructs these reductive perceptions of both Caribbean women’s textile practices and their products as “mere craft.” I seek here to elucidate how these artists are foregrounding textile processes as sites where Caribbean women’s hands perform tasks of taking care, bearing witness, and rendering memory material—tasks whose implications are both political and spiritual. From the material genealogy of Brodber’s sisal mat and the familial recuperation of Llanos-Figueroa’s tapestries to Clark’s pointed deconstruction of a Confederate flag, these artists use textile and text to challenge their audiences to rethink the origins and affordances of objects long overlooked, to see them anew as sites at which the emotional and political labors of black women’s lives are rendered not only visible but palpable.

I begin with a sentence from Patricia Saunders, the opening gesture of her 2016 essay on the work of Ebony G. Patterson:

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.” Saunders thus begins her discussion of Patterson’s work with a consideration of a poem by Olive Senior, and here I am taking up 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.”2 My own thinking on Caribbean texts and textiles, and on the place of textiles in Caribbean history, began with reading Llanos-Figueroa’s 2009 novel Daughters of the Stone, when I found myself, as a textile practitioner, encountering its first main character: an enslaved African seamstress in the textile taller (workshop) on a Puerto Rican plantation. Suddenly I was (in Saunders’s terms) seeing Caribbean women’s textile practices and their products in a new way, as having been (at least potentially) born in slavery—a historical origin story that brings a complicated network of racialized power dynamics and traumatic associations to bear alongside the more familiar resonances of homemaking, family relationship, and crafting tradition.

Daughters of the Stone is a multigenerational family saga centering a family of Afro–Puerto Rican women, beginning with Fela—a gifted seamstress who is purchased for her “magic fingers” but disciplined out of the textile artistry that she can and wants to practice because it interrupts the uniformity required by the taller’s clients. On her first day, Fela quickly devises and executes an improvement upon the design for a napkin she has been told to copy: “There was a perfect rosebud embroidered on the white cloth. But it was different somehow. Around the edges of the flower, Fela had embroidered a single, almost imperceptible strand of gold thread. The effect was one of sharpening the image, making it three-dimensional. With this subtle addition, the flower came to life.”3 The narration moves swiftly from mystery to explanation, from relating the effect that Fela’s artistry “somehow” produces in the viewer to detailing exactly how that effect is achieved. Thus Llanos-Figueroa establishes in the early pages of the novel a thematic emphasis on process as the core of the artist’s power—a power that, moreover, is figured as life-giving.

Despite her achievement, however, Fela is told, “Next time, don’t make changes in the work. All pieces must be exactly alike, a set, you understand?” Uniformity is privileged over artistry, and Fela’s status as a cog in the taller’s machine is enforced. The stakes here are emphasized by the words Tía Josefa, the (also enslaved) supervisor of the taller, uses in trying to mollify Fela: “I see you are a true artist” (12). But the reader never sees Fela enjoy the opportunity to express the fullness of her skill and vision. 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.4 In rendering Mati as an artist, Llanos-Figueroa again goes beyond ekphrasis to stage for readers 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 [Cheo’s] skin tone and spent hours, hundreds of stitches, on his hands. (119–21)

Here 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.” The reader’s sense of the textile produced derives directly from the account of its production.

Similarly, Brodber’s 2014 minimalist family saga Nothing’s Mat takes us, once again, to a scene of making: the unnamed I-narrator goes from England to Jamaica as a teenager to do research into her family history for a sixth-form project.5 She stays with Cousin Nothing, a relative of her father, who teaches her to make a sisal mat from scratch, reaping and processing the fibers 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.6

It is significant that this process is initiated when Nothing says 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. We have a scene not only of making but of making as answer to the questions, “Who are my people?” and “How do I represent the web of relations to which I belong?” The mat becomes both the I-narrator’s family tree (a record of her ancestry) and her family history (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 as a site of comfort: she bundles up her sleeping children in it. Whereas Llanos-Figueroa depicts the freewoman-daughter surpassing the humble crafts her enslaved mother was forced to make and achieving the art she makes for herself (we know it is 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.7 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).

It is worth noting that beyond their similar attention to the processes by which these textile artifacts are made, Llanos-Figueroa’s and Brodber’s novels align in their depiction of the motive behind the making: each textile is a kind of mourning object, a response to loss. Each of Mati’s tapestries in Daughters is a portrait of someone who has left her: Tía Josefa (who raised her), Cheo (her lost love), and the loa Oshun who stands in for her mother Fela, whom she never knew.8 In Nothing’s Mat, the mat contains not only genealogy and ancestral stories but also ancestral pain, which is conveyed to the I-narrator’s daughter through touch: “What [ancestors] Maud and in particular Clarise went through was no stroll in the park. I can see the pain in [the daughter] when she touches their part of the mat” (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 color for Cheo’s skin—suggests caretaking directed toward the lost one, or toward their memory (which is arguably the same thing).

The textile-based work of Caribbean-American artist Clark resonates also at the intersection of commemoration and remediation. I am thinking most specifically of Unraveling (2015), a response to “the criminalization of African-American bodies” and its resultant violence against black people—a contemporary phenomenon with long historical roots in the United States and with resonances that extend throughout the diaspora.9 This work began as Unraveled (2015)—a static piece in which Clark displays three “segregated” piles of thread (red, white, and dark blue) that are the product of her meticulous unraveling (with the help of an assistant) of a cotton Confederate battle flag—a process that took months. Clark says of this first iteration, “But that wasn’t enough. . . . I realized that one of the things that needed to happen was the conversation.” So instead of presenting the “finished” (that is, deconstructed) object, Unraveling is a public, cooperative performance of the deconstruction of the object, in which Clark works with a succession of gallery visitors to unravel a flag, showing each person her method and then engaging them in conversations about history, “monumentality,” and racism.

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 not merely as the products of domestic, feminized labor (or leisure) but as objects and acts worthy of attention. Clark gives us a scene of unmaking as political practice, deconstructing a symbolically 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).10 In the name of lost relations (writ large), Clark takes something putatively untouchable and not only removes it from its lofty heights (as Bree Newsome did at the South Carolina state house in 2015) but shows it up by stripping it down. Unmaking it.

Clark’s account of the work foregrounds relationality not only in the origins of the piece but in its performance: she emphasizes the conversations that happen, that she is seeking, suggesting that this is an openhearted practice that can connect perhaps unlikely interlocutors. (Where Llanos-Figueroa’s Mati makes alone and Brodber’s I-narrator makes with her cousin Nothing, Clark unmakes with strangers.) But it would 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 and reviled symbol, has perhaps gotten ideas above its station). Reminiscent of the parental joke “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it,” 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 that produced them. (Clark’s painstaking Unraveling produces an effect very different from burning the flag or slashing it to ribbons.) I also want to consider Clark’s unraveling as an act of caretaking directed at the victims of white supremacy: the analogue of Mati’s careful labors in creating the portraits of her lost loved ones, and of the joint labor of Nothing and the I-narrator to commemorate their past and present relations.

Here I will propose that Clark’s treatment of the Confederate battle flag—her public revisiting and reversal of the scene of the flag’s making—comes close to evoking ritual, thereby offering (by inversion) insight into how it is that the objects we make acquire symbolic and spiritual power. The work of Llanos-Figueroa, Brodber, and Clark enjoins us, first, to look beyond the textile artifact (or, arguably, any object of art or craft) to the relationships within which the artifact is enmeshed. It suggests, further, that to really see (in Saunders’s terms) the relationships among and the humanity of the people evoked, summoned, or represented by these objects—a particularly urgent ethical imperative when considering the cultural production of Caribbean and African-descended people in the wake of colonialism, genocide, and enslavement—we have to attend to the scenes and processes of the objects’ making. And it promises, finally, that this careful attention to process and to human relationships will allow us to turn new eyes upon the objects themselves and to more fully comprehend their place and power in the world.

 

Rachel L. Mordecai is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the editor of sx salon. She is primarily interested in Caribbean literature and culture. She is the author of Citizenship Under Pressure: The 1970s in Jamaican Literature and Culture (University of the West Indies Press, 2014); her current book project, tentatively titled “No Ancestry Except the Black Water,” is a study of Caribbean family sagas.

 


A version of this essay was first presented at the West Indian Literature Conference at the University of Miami, October 2018.

[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, no.1 (2016): 98.

[2] Ibid., 100, 102.

[3] Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, Daughters of the Stone (New York: St. Martin’s, 2009), 8, 12 (emphasis mine); hereafter cited in the text.

[4] In depicting this transgenerational shift between mother as textile artisan and daughter as textile artist in the slavery/post-slavery context, Daughters of the Stone echoes Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo and the relationship between weavers Hilda Effania and her daughter Sassafrass in that novel. Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1982).

[5] Brodber’s I-narrator is later nicknamed Princess by the man who becomes her husband, but this occurs in the very latter part of the novel, and the nickname is used in only two scenes.

[6] Erna Brodber, Nothing’s Mat (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2014), 13–14; hereafter cited in the text.

[7] I render crafts and art in italics here to defamiliarize not the terms themselves but the implicit hard-and-fast distinction/hierarchy between them, which—whatever its utility in other contexts—seems particularly problematic in the context of enslavement and its afterlives.

[8] In one important scene Fela appears in a beautiful yellow dress of her own design: yellow is Oshun’s color.

[9] This and subsequent quotes are taken from Clark’s lecture “Southern Symbols/Monumental Cloth” at Speed Art Museum, youtube.com/watch?v=heV_U2A3P7I.

[10] It is worth noting that while in Unraveling Clark uses her textile skill to unmake the Confederate battle flag, in a later exhibit titled Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know (2019) she uses the same set of skills to recreate the Confederate Flag of Truce: the humble object (a kitchen cloth) that brought the Civil War to an end. See Sarah Cascone, Artnet News, “‘This Flag Brought Our Nation Back Together’: Artist Sonya Clark Explains Why She Is Recreating the Little-Known Flag that Ended the Civil War,” 1 April 2019, news.artnet.com/art-world/sonya-clark-fabric-workshop-confederate-flag-1502869.

 

 

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