strange fruit

“Strange Fruit” — 28″ x 26″

This piece emerged while I was making the “Middle Passage” quilts. In that series, I used a brown fabric with horizontal stripes to represent slave ships. That fabric shows up again here, notably under a white house. It’s one of those references that no one would get unless I told them, i.e. a white structure upheld by the slave trade. The central motif was pieced during the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal (blogged about here and here).

“Strange Fruit” addresses the fact that the racism underpinning slavery exists on a continuum — how it’s evolved rather than disappeared. Specifically, I was thinking about the Jim Crow era and all its brutality — which explains the tree motif and the quilt’s title. At some point during its creation, I researched images of lynching victims. These are hard to look at. Nevertheless, I printed three of them out onto a sheer organza with the idea of overlaying the human images on the tree fabric to make explicit the reference. But I found I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I carefully rolled up the three sheer rectangles of cloth and placed them in boxes or vases for safekeeping — away from human eyes, in a restful dark — until I could decide what to do with them. Bury them?

Around the same time, I came across notes about a visual arts show (in D.C., maybe?) that featured images of lynched African Americans. I read with avid interest how carefully staged and curated the show had been, specifically designed to account for the intense sorrow or rage that might arise, including the hosting of structured, public conversations.

It confirmed my decision to exclude the images.

I couldn’t retrace that research now, but here’s a link to a similarly themed 2017 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This show was a collaboration between the museum and the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organization founded by Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy / A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Stevenson’s new project, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was the subject of a recent 60 Minutes episode, but it you’re short on time, I recommend watching the short clip at the top of the Memorial’s website, here.

To continue.

Last weekend, K and I attended Claudia Rankine’s play, “The White Card” — which addresses this very topic, that is, white people’s support of and use of images of black death in art — either art they create or art they buy. The black artist character, Charlotte, refers to the topic as “the black death spectacle”.

The play asked lots of provocative questions about cultural appropriation and they were all the more powerful for being aimed at white liberal progressives “trying to do the right thing”.

(I cringed when I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me” on the living room coffee table. Is that a ‘meta-prop’ — a prop of a prop? You can just make it out on the white upholstered surface).

Needless to say, the black artist invited to a dinner party hosted by wealthy white potential patrons cringes over a lot more than that. The collectors mean well — ahem — but the conversations make clear that good intentions are not enough (when did I hear that last? — in a review of Kathryn Bigelow’s movie, “Detroit”.)

The play wrestles with the question: What does it mean to portray black suffering as art? More specifically, what does it mean when white artists do so or when white collectors collect it?

One statement and one question really stood out and apply to me (to this quilt and others, as well as the many-year project of setting a piece of historic fiction in 18th century South Carolina):

  • “Maybe you buy images of black death because that’s the only form of blackness you’re comfortable with” and
  • “Why don’t you make yourself your project?” (instead of black suffering).

Back to the ink-jet print-outs: I have looked for those disturbing cloth-printed figures a number of times in the intervening years and not been able to find them. This probably says more about my distracted self and less about the potency of the images, but still … Now, at least, I know that they will never, ever appear on any art work of mine.

I’ll end with a question Charlotte asks of her white patron: “Have you ever had the feeling that you’re ALL WRONG?”

28 thoughts on “strange fruit

    1. deemallon Post author

      I just put up my barley soup to cook and am going to poke around again. I need to find them.

  1. Tina Zaffiro

    Thank you for opening my eyes to what I never would have seen …. and your words that leave me with a lot to think about.

    1. deemallon Post author

      I was just thinking of you Tina. Or I should say of your father. I am applying red stitches to an appliqué heart. It won’t be the Sacred Heart, but still.

      1. tina

        It was just this past January while visiting my sister that I found out my dad made these. I had long left home and with my family living in Hawaii and M and I just getting by with two little ones we were not able to see each other. My dad was an amazing artist mostly oil paintings but really all around artistic and always very religious. I am incredibly grateful to my sister for giving me this … it has found a place among my most treasured pieces.

        1. deemallon Post author

          What a wonderful story. It’s interesting you knew nothing about his embroidery.

  2. Nancy

    Through your sharing, you teach. Through the information, images (seen or imagined) and song you inspire me to think. Thank you.

  3. Katrin

    Thank you for sharing all of this and especially about your art. A friend of mine mentioned she was going to see that same play. It sounded very interesting. I wished she’d told me about it earlier. I’m looking forward to hearing her experience at it when we walk again this week.

    1. deemallon Post author

      Part of what I liked about it was that so many of the references were very recent. Also, the theater is small enough that you can see others people’s reactions. Also interesting. One black viewer snapped her fingers whenever the artist character said something particularly poignant.

  4. Michelle Skater

    To witness is an act of love. Your thinking is deep, honest and fully felt. Your conclusions about this project are very right. It takes courage to see ourselves whole. Thank you for sharing the process. I too have thought about my whiteness in relation to race issues since the first wave of Feminism in the Seventies through to the movements of the moment. We fall into our times and the struggle to come to terms with truth is demanding. It continues to be a privilege having your good company for the ongoing journey.

    1. deemallon Post author

      (Michelle). You model grappling with reality and our reactions to it all the time. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate that. You.

  5. RainSluice

    Ever since Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial, I’ve been rolling this concept of cultural appropriation around in my head and noticing more and more about my own White Privileged being: the way I say things and describe things in conversation, the assumptions I make about people simply not like myself – where does my ignorance come from? From the culture I was born into, of course. Without being made to see my mistakes by others, I would not be learning anything. This is deeply painful stuff that has to be faced, not only by racists, but by those who don’t know they are being insensitive as hell. “There is no way to peace, peace is the way”. I need that black woman to follow me around and snap her fingers every time I am insensitive or make a blind uninformed assumption. I’m at least aware that I need her, that I can’t do it very well yet on my own?

    1. deemallon Post author

      A lot of listening is required. This is sad but true: the mere fact that you recognize your white privilege means you’ve come a ways into the process of recognizing racism. We have to be willing to be really uncomfortable. To get it wrong, time and time again. And to figure out how to go from learning and reflecting to making efforts toward social justice. Preach. Preach. I notice lately this idea of wanting a break from it all. Can you imagine? We can shut it off and “take a break”!

      1. RainSluice

        Sounds like a great work. I’d love to see it and will look for it. Thank you for sharing all this.

  6. Hazel

    Thank you for these insights. Paying attention to ourselves is so important.
    Remembering explaining that song to my boys years ago seeing “There were lynchings” by Jacob Lawrence with the mostly African American fourth graders a couple of years back.

  7. saskia

    according to my mother, who has among other activities in this particular field, attended a weekend lecture on Race, the terms ‘race’ and therefore ‘racism’ are in fact incorrect, what we should use is the term discrimination, because the concept of ‘race’ cannot really be applied to human beings, we are all the same race, looking at human bones they are all white-ish and one cannot differentiate them into ‘races’; they can be categorized into ethnic groups, which is of course something quite different from ‘race’; in Germany the term ‘race’ is so sensitive and hardly used among academics (due to WWII), I learnt this last bit of information from a German professor on Gender and Discrimination of the University of Maastricht ( my alma mater as it so happens) She is a close friend of my mother, they talk about these sorts of issues a lot, whenever I visit I get to join in the conversation.
    I am not disagreeing with anything you have stated in this and previous posts Dee, I totally get how incredibly privileged I am as white woman, in this century, living in the Netherlands! and that each and every one of us has a responsibility to look at ourselves first and foremost, question our (unconscious) attitudes and biases, and try and learn from past mistakes, we should try regarding each and every individual with compassion, regardless of colour sex religion etc, in the words of the great M.L. King, I too have a dream…..
    I am just stating that even the terminology we use has us in it’s grip and that that is also important to look at; I sense that as long as we think of human beings being of a different ‘race’ this in itself almost allows us to attach different traits etc to people of a so-called other ‘race’ and it serves to separate us

    I hope I have phrased it all as clearly as possible, it isn’t always easy in English

    1. deemallon Post author

      You are clear. Thank you for this rich and dense comment. If only thoughts and beliefs about race were rational! At this point (maybe not at all points) it seems as tho Germany is doing a much better job than America at reckoning with its sinful past.

    1. deemallon Post author

      Human suffering fuels a lot of art but it gets complicated when it is someone else’s suffering, doesn’t it?

  8. Pingback: Recent reading: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones | Pattern and Outrage

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