In July of 2023, the textile artist Diedrick Brackens was an Artist in Residence at Indigo Arts Alliance (IAA), an arts incubator space based in Portland, Maine. IAA’s mission is to build global connections by bringing together Black and Brown artists from diverse backgrounds to engage in their creative process, through a residency that builds lasting relationships rooted in co-mentorship. An integral aspect of the IAA’s vision is to provide Maine-based artists of African descent access to a broader range of practicing artists of color from around the world. This focus elevates and showcases the thought-leadership, creativity, and vision that artists bring to a healthy community. IAA supports, coordinates, and creates opportunities to increase visibility, access, resources, representation, and narrative ownership. IAA embodies what is required for the dismantling and rebuilding of cultural narratives that have previously excluded and erased the integrity and capacities of Black and Brown people.
For the month of July 2023, Brackens was paired with a local Portland-based printmaker, Jordan Parks. Brackens offered a net-making workshop while Parks offered a printmaking workshop during Deconstructing the Boundaries: A Future of Land and Food Resilience, a symposium organized by IAA in partnership with the Maine Botanical Gardens. Brackens’s woven art quotes West African weaving traditions often with pieces constructed of cotton, in recognition of the violence the crop of cotton wreaked against African Americans in the eras of slavery and sharecropping. Reclaiming cotton for his tender and haunting expressions of African diasporic masculinity, Brackens’s calmly beautiful works at times signify histories of specific violence. His deployment of subtlety, referencing shared knowledge of shared history, imbues his works with a sense of mystery. His weavings articulate a third presence, between painting and sculpture, and shimmer with multiple meanings, like listening to a mother tongue you didn’t know you knew. The materiality of woven art emerges from its three-dimensional presence—it is not entirely a flat plane work but a work with material depth—and its lightness. Cloth relates materially to the body; we know woven textiles mostly from our experience of wearing them. Brackens’s woven art draws from this vernacular of the well-known touch of cloth to access metaphysical dignity, as his works signify through symbol, allude to history, encoding a mysterious sense of manifestation through materiality.
Cloth-based art implies tactility. The materiality of weaving is to beckon touch, reminding us of the hands of the artist who created them. Brackens harnesses this sense of consecration, of shared touch and gaze, to reach moments of cultural trauma and transform them into healing. His weaving Bitter Attendance, Drown Jubilee, woven of cotton, acrylic yarn, and polyester organza, is a mournful example of this juxtaposition. The image appears gentle, with magical realism an engine of this work of art. In the tapestry, two young men stand in water and catch fish. The young man standing to the left cradles an enormous catfish, a staple fish in the South. The man to the right leans into the water and through his arms gracefully swims two smaller fish. The gold toned sky suggests brilliant dusk or moon-filled night. The grace and solemnity of the men’s forms and the fishes’ suppleness suggest the sacred: biblical loaves and fishes and those apostles who will become “fishers of men.” The strip of deep indigo water in darker woven cloth is at once cooling and soothing and also sorrowful and funereal. We sense a passage, a transformation taking place in this still scene.
The work commemorates a tragic act of racist violence that took place near the artist’s birthplace, of Mexia, Texas, a few years before the artist was born. On 19 June 1981, three African-American youths, Carl Baker, Anthony Freeman, and Steven Booker, drowned while in police custody during the community’s Juneteenth celebration. Carl Baker’s sister, Pamela Baker, recalls that—before the tragedy—the Juneteenth event was looked forward to by her family as a deeply meaningful festival of remembrance of emancipation, “like a giant family reunion held on hallowed ground” (from Michael Hall, “The Ghosts of Comanche Crossing,” Texas Monthly, June 2021). Decades later, Pamela says of the loss of her brother, “It never goes away . . . I miss everything about Carl, just seeing his smile, his dark skin with beautiful white teeth” (from “The Ghosts of Comanche Crossing”).
Brackens’s weaving fittingly evokes a tender sense of familial love facing the violence of racial hatred. Beneath the tapestry of the fishing young men, handcuffs float. It was the young men being handcuffed by the police that caused them to drown when the boat in which the officers had placed them capsized. (The high school students were handcuffed because a small bag of marijuana had been found in their car; witnesses note that White men openly smoking pot nearby were not apprehended by the police that night). Brackens’s tapestry captures the silken smooth grace of the young men’s faces and forms, and yet it is the fish who signify the three lost youths. Here, in the cloth’s alchemy of symbol and sign, Baker, Freeman, and Booker are resurrected. The Black men lifting them out of the water appear as angels or deities.
Textile is crucial here, for the medium matches the message. Brackens’s Bitter Attendance, Drown Jubilee is all about touch: the touch of the figures conjured by Brackens’s artistry to save the young men, the touch of Brackens, the artist, to create the work, and above all the touch of community that can heal wounds. Brackens’s 2019 tapestry Demigod, of woven cotton and acrylic yarn, extends this connection between textile’s haptic pull and the divine, the human touch of weaving and the sacred pull of transfiguration. In Demigod, a Black man stands with arms raised and lightning flickers downwards across him and his red horse. The color scheme of the fabric is evocative of late evening or nighttime thunderstorms, those that emerge nearly nightly in summer in the South. In Demigod, that which could be dangerous—lightning—is harnessed and transformed into a lifeforce, as the figure rises above the blue background into red light. The figure of the supernatural horse and demigod-like Black man recurs in Brackens’s Break and Tremble (woven cotton and acrylic yarn). Fittingly for this art of tactility, risk, and transformation, many of Brackens’s works contemplate gay eroticism, confronting the persistence of anti-gay bias in our culture. The striking peach, teal, cream, and black weaving Marrow Becomes Breath, confronts the viewer with a kneeling Black man, a human skull, a cattle skull, buried moon, and a rising sun, intimating suffering and a profound capacity to draw strength from challenge. The memory of the drowned youths at Lake Mexia haunts the weaving, a deep and abiding dance. Here, spring greens and pinks hold the men as they rise from the water, and catfish, symbols of rebirth, swim between them. Brackens creates his own dyes, a practice that infuses his works with unique color tones.
Earlier this summer, in June, Indigo Arts Alliance hosted the art consultant, indigo and community arts advocate, lecturer, teacher, and textile artist Arianne King Comer, who visited from South Carolina. King Comer’s cloth works, which celebrate joy and unity, are rooted in Yoruba culture; she was taught by the renowned batik artist Nike Olyani Davis in Oshogbo, Nigeria. King Comer was paired with Portland-based multidisciplinary artist Danielle Arroyo; both provided several public engagements, from an indigo dyeing workshop to an artist talk and open house. With the contributions of these two artists who were thoughtfully placed in community, textile arts truly thrived this summer in Portland, Maine, thanks to Indigo Arts Alliance.
Image at top: Diedrick Brackens, Marrow Becomes Breath, cotton and acrylic yarn, sewing trim. 97 x 107 in., 2022, image courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seoul.