In the early 90s I had collected quite a few pieces from Africa. Mostly they were textiles and baskets that I would buy from my favorite importers who I would see at conferences. It was also at the time that apartheid was coming to a close in South Africa and the Turnley brothers had published a book of their amazing photographs of the transition of living conditions for those steeped in those political conditions. I bought the book simply because once picked up, it was impossible to put down. I used the faces of two couples from the book. It gave me an opportunity to really study the faces, the expressions that reflected the harshness of their situations. And especially their closeness in hard times. These two works were never exhibited as I remember, but I could never quite part with them either. I still love looking into their faces and the bits and pieces from my studio that I chose to represent their individual surroundings. I have always felt the use of the images and African culture was an appropriation of something not my own. Although I can be amazed that I actually got the likenesses so well with painting on tapa cloth, they still were not photos that I took and the photo imagery is what makes them work.
Later during the war of the former Yugoslavia I would cross this line again, and for four years of that war collect the newspaper images that I simply could not throw away. And after a year of collecting them and the letters I wrote to a journalist and the president, I covered coats made from old blankets with them. Four years of coats that showed in images how the war changed not only its victims but how it was reported. I still have those coats and the child’s casket that holds all those photos and letters and the remains of flowers that I picked for those women who endured so much. I have no idea how to get rid of them all, but I will, some day.
But back to the influences of the tribal. I made this small tapestry of a young woman in a doorway wearing what she sees in her landscape. At the time I was weaving baskets on the loom using a warp of threads and filling in every shed change with fibers only used to make baskets. This small tapestry had a lovely time out this past year on exhibit called “The Art of the Cloth.” The image below it is a chair I made in 1994 with Don Brundrick. It is mountain laurel and all the coverings are African mud cloth.
And one more image of gourd baskets made with knotting techniques and a collection of beads from Africa. One long gourd was cut in two pieces. the knotted cap with beads and bronze pieces closes the top and is filled with clay beads from there. The long neck of the gourd has brass coins and beads that give a muffled jingle sound when it is tipped back and forth. The cut end of it is also knotted closed. These along with the fertile female figure with a clay head and coiled head dress for a closure still sit together on a chest in the foyer with African baskets and the two couples portraits close by.
I don’t do work like this anymore. But I still love the feel, the smell, the look and the sound of these pieces. They share space with other gourd pieces, a Masai yogurt pouch with a hide cover and unbelievably strong odor inside and an incised gourd from the Smithsonian Museum. So much of this work has the mark and identity of the hands that made them.