Christmas with Mrs. Mary Lee Bendolph!

005.480x480-75“Christmas always came to our house, but Santy Claus only showed up once in a while.”  I love this line.  It does so much in just 16 words.  “Santy Claus” is marked as Other both in how it is named and located as a secondary, um, clause.  It literally delivers Christmas from its consumerist saga and resets it within new sets of practices and values. The line comes from none other than the children’s book written by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney: The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll.  These 16 words are the perfect opening to the historical  story that gets represented in this book.

allilleverwantchristmasdollIn the story, beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, three sisters receive one special gift: Baby Betty Doll. The sisters, once inseparable— called chickadees by their mother, because they were always chattering, twittering, and doing everything together— are now fighting amongst one another.  When Santy Claus actually does visit in one auspicious year with the beloved Baby Betty Doll, conflict arises since all three must share the one, coveted doll. Nella convinces her two sisters that Baby Betty was her idea and written request to Santy so she should receive the doll.  The other two sisters begrudgingly agree and go on to play outside without their sister.  Nella thinks she is going to have the best day of her life, only to find out it becomes the worst: playing with the doll, all alone, without her sister’s company, bores her to tears.  She apologizes to her two sisters and from there, they work out a plan so that the doll can belong to all three of them.  It the end, they learn that all they really want for Christmas is themselves, their creativity, togetherness, and family, not a store-bought item.

The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll is set in the Great Depression and works well as the sequel to Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters about a Virginia plantation in 1859, also by Patricia McKissack.  In Christmas in the Big House, McKissack offers a look into the ways that the resources, lifestyles, values, and traditions between the plantation vs. the quarters are stunningly different, with Christmas as one shining example.  Although the book has been criticized for not showing enough of the harshness of slavery, the critique of race and accumulation in the book is on point.  McKissack is, after all, saying something quite deliberate about the histories of values, Christmas, and black communities in this book with one striking scene: the slave master promises his young white daughter that she’ll be able to have her very own slave in 1865 when she will be old enough to know how to be a real master;  meanwhile, down in them slave quarters, a black slave mother tells a young black male that freedom is soon coming so they might postpone their escape.  Given what we know about how news of the Emancipation Proclamation, slave revolts, and icons like Nat Turner traveled amongst slaves, completely out of the sight and hearing of most whites, the striking differences in BOTH the conversations and practices that McKissack portrays is a historical accuracy, not a romantic overpass.

MLLike she does with Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, McKissack uses historical research to write The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll also. This book is not a world of make believe or simply a story about learning to share.  I was surprised to see how many introductions and discussions of the book leave out the one, very important character who McKissack introduces at the very start in her “Note about the Story”: Mary Lee Bendolph. Once again, we see the white liberalist imperative of a false “universalism” wipe away black historical specificity. The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll  is the narrative of Mrs. Mary Lee Bendolph, called Miz Mary, a famous quilter and storyteller from Gee’s Bend, a legendary African American community of slave descendants who even turned the papering of walls to keep out drafts into an art form.  The three sisters in The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll even play as they wallpaper at their mother’s direction, a practice you can glimpse in the short documentary below:

McKissack’s story about a black family’s gift of one doll to a family of sisters is the story of Miz Mary and her own sisters.  McKissack attempted to create an image of a black family in the Great Depression based on the way that Miz Mary described her own all-black town and life there.  Here is Miz Mary talking about her quilting and how the mainstream apparatus had no way of seeing her work as art because “they didn’t know nuthin about no art”:

McKissack does a wonderful thing in this children’s book.  She goes from the traditions and spiritual values laid into the practices of quilting— sophisticated, century-old practices unseen and unimagined in the white world— to tell a story of what Christmas would have looked like for them.  I created the playlist below to go with McKissack’s children’s book.  The playlist starts with Miz Mary, looks at various events and stories related to the many women in Gee’s Bend, and ends with a historical look at African American women’s quilting as a spiritual/visual rhetoric and journey.

Before I even knew this book was based on Mary Lee Bendolph, I knew McKissack would create The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll to match a real black family’s life.  She always reminds us that we have alternate stories to tell.  We have alternate stories to live by.


African Women’s Fashion Design as Rhetoric and Inspiration

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The bangles, the earrings, the intricate patterns, the textile expertise, the brilliant pops of color as THE accessory, the bold color all over and all around, the depth of brown skin tones spanning all shades, the beads encased on long necks, the necklaces draped over the shoulder or all the way down to the stomach, and then, for a grand finale, an African female designer in a self-designed African print dress takes a bow… I love all of it. I am talking here about African women designers of contemporary African fashions.

It is NOT my intent here to showcase new clothes to buy. The slideshow that opens this post (featuring some of my favorite designers) is not a shopping list. Many of these designers do sell their fashions at their websites and can be commissioned to create something for you from one of their collections. Their prices are much more reasonable, respectful, and human— in terms of human labor, skill, and textile design— than what you will see during any visit to a NYC Bloomingdale’s or Saks, neither of which are places where I ever shop.  I am interested in much more than fashion for purchase, however, when I follow contemporary African women designers.  Their work and presence are much bigger than that.  As of now, they are not so fully commodified as to represent the kind of fashion cartel like what we get with Prada and the likes.  When DBU showcased her amazing jewelry at 2011 Africa Fashion Week, the impact was not represented by exotic gems stolen from Africa (since colonialism, the utterance conflict-free diamonds, for instance, is simply an oxymoron… there can be NO such thing as a CONFLICT-FREE natural resource if it is taken from Africa.)  For DBU, it was the color, craftmanship, originality, ingenuity, and stunning impact of her jewelry that carried the day.  I would wear each item, exactly as she has them layered and paired, wearing all black clothing just so you can see the jewelry better just as she has it here:

We live in a world of colors and patterns that communicate their own histories, desires, and visions and these women designers give me a world that I like to look at and be part of.  When I watch the bodies adorned in sequin patterns in the designs of someone like Eredappa (shown below), I am as drawn to what she is communicating as I am to the graphic techniques of Mickalene Thomas with her works’ rhinestones and intricate patterns. That Eredappa attempts to mesh beadwork alongside local, Nigerian fabrics to make multidimensional design seems well aligned with how Thomas also constructs her visual world.

I especially like to follow youtube-channelers who create their own movies of the African designers that move them.  In close second to that preference are the runway shows that the designers themselves plan and execute, brilliantly showcased in the United States with Africa Fashion Week.  In both of these visual contexts, what you see are multimedia-writers telling us a story… designing us a story.  At the 2011 Africa Fashion week, Korto Momolu (fondly remembered for her time on Project Runway) especially captured design-as-its-own-story with her 2011 collection that tells the story of women’s survival during war using her home country of Liberia as muse:

Each piece in Momolu’s runway exhibit tells its own story and each piece works in specific relation to the previous and following outfits: it is the most visually rich kind of chapter-building that I can imagine.

I like to follow these designers and look at what they are up to.  They inspire me to create anew, to be bold and imaginative, to not tone myself down in a suffocating world of beige, and to rely on my own local languages and cultural expressions for contemporary structures.  This is how I plan to inspire and charge my summer.

Mickalene Thomas II. Black Woman as “Origin of the Universe”

I thought I knew what to expect from Mickalene Thomas’s exhibit.  Of course, I thought it would be wonderful, but Thomas took it to another level in a way that made my pre-exhibit-viewing post unworthy of her actual impact.  Just as she creates worlds for her sitting models, she created a world in this exhibit, “Origin of the Universe,” her first museum exhibition that showed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art before coming to the Brooklyn Museum.

I walked into a typical gallery display, but this time, with larger-than-life-size images of black women, with lips (of various kinds) super-sized in all of the right places.  Rhinestone enamel, that’s the best way I can describe it, takes the place of black women’s flesh and bone as well as the textiles that wrap their bodies and settings.  Up close and personal, these black women seem to just shine in a way that museum reproductions will simply never be able to really reproduce. The blue veil on that Sunday-Go-Meeting hat makes the whole wall glow right up alongside the glow of blue lipstick sitting alongside.  These are not portraits of the same woman and yet they are connected and connecting.

This is my first post about an art exhibit and I am doing my best here to describe Thomas’s installation with words and language that will fall outside of the usual distant, abstract white museum-talk that we usually hear.  I want to have a deeply personal conversation with Thomas’s exhibit and so I need different language, a task that Thomas herself excels at!

“Origins of the Universe” is the re-mix of Gustave Courbet’s still controversial 1866 painting, L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World).  This “language” that Thomas invents in her work is all the more apparent to me after reading the essays in the exhibit catalog, a critique Roberta Smith addresses in the New York Times.  In fact, the first essay of the catalog opens by polemicizing black beauty: not by discussing Thomas, but by providing an ode to Winslow Homer and his oil painting, The Cotton Pickers, cited as a sensitive rendering of black life and the history that the writer thinks Thomas encapsulates.  Unlike what Homer and this curator want to focus on, Thomas’s black women ain’t about no damn cotton! Along with her remix of Courbet in her exhibit’s very title and, thereby, placement of black woman AS the universe, Thomas’s paintings also explicitly un-do and re-do 19th century European art by Ingres, Titian, Renoir, and the likes.  Thomas shows that she can undertake a critique of western art, past and present, and also OVERtake it with black women as muse, subject, and world.

After witnessing these larger-than-life images and places, I walked into a room of Thomas’s vast array of collages where black women are once again pieced back together again.  To the left of these collages is a video display of a striking woman in red and a portrait Thomas has done of her: all I know at this point is that she is called Sandra AKA Mama Bush. The woman in the video poses and shines and it seems like Thomas’s rhinestones are again there to literally capture that shine.  From here I walk into yet another room, Brooklyn’s unique edition to the exhibit from its Santa Monica beginnings: an installation of four, furnished, domestic interiors made specially for this Brooklyn exhibit. These intricately patterned interiors are, of course, amazing with their level of detail— wall paper, flooring designs, pillows, hand-made furniture, 1970s album covers, shoes lying around— and all so meticulously planned.  As you walk around these four rooms, along one wall is a series of more than a dozen photographs in layered, gold framing.  It feels like you are at your grandmother’s house, walking past photos of the family, and, for black female viewers, this kind of aesthetic intimacy is, I think, exactly the point!  Photos of Sandra AKA Mama Bush line the walls.  Like I already said, Thomas creates a world, not pieces on a gallery wall, a world that gives you back to yourself.

And just when I am sure I have reached the end of the exhibit, there is a small room tucked in the back: it is a small resting place with brightly upholstered chairs, ottomans, and a bench, all made/upholstered by Thomas herself. I sit and watch a movie/documentary about Thomas’s muse: her mother— Sandra AKA Mama Bush.  We learn that her mother was/is a survivor of domestic abuse, drug addiction, and now failing health/mortality.  Mama Bush wanted to be a model but met the barriers associated with the white beauty industry; that is, until she became her daughter’s model, now immortalized in a universe for and about black women as a point of origin.  As I watch each moment of this film, a film that Thomas herself made, I can’t help but notice and literally feel the textile work of the chair I am sitting in (I spent the most time in a chair but I made sure to visit each furniture item in the room since each tapestry was different.)  I am reminded of black women’s quilting traditions and am deeply struck by the fact that Thomas chose this as the medium in which she wanted me/us to hear her Mother and Muse.  I was so overwhelmed that I decided to forego looking at anything else in the museum and just went back to where I first entered the exhibit and started all over again.

If I can be a bit territorial, I must say that I was proud to be part of Brooklyn and a member of the Brooklyn Museum (I do not always join museums in this way because they seldom represent me).  I did, originally, have mixed feelings about the lack of art replicas at the Museum Shop: on the one hand, I want to see Thomas everywhere but, at the same time, I am VERY appreciative that Thomas and the black women who she centers are not commodified as museum products for purchase.  I love that the Museum made the exhibition even bigger than its Santa Monica showing (and wish, in fact, it controlled more of the direction of the catalog).  I will have to miss Thomas’s talks at the Museum, unfortunately, since I have my last classes those days, especially the November 29 talk with/about her mother.  I love that the Museum offers: a slideshow of the installation; a playlist of 28 songs designed by Thomas to hear while you see, sit, and watch; and even an online teacher’s guide.  Like I said, Mickalene Thomas, the black women who she centers, and Brooklyn are definitely shining!

Mickalene Thomas I: Black Women’s Environments

After having the kind of week that presents no seeming ending, I decided I would inaugurate the new week with Mickalene Thomas who is showing her Origin of the Universe at the Brooklyn Museum, just a 20 minute walk from my home.

I have been increasingly drawn to Thomas’s work and the way that she uses black female models.  She creates an entire setting for them, one that she intentionally creates to empower them.  And though Thomas seems to, forever and a day, be compared to Andy Warhol, she is not showing/resuscitating victimized white celebrities in the way that he did.  Instead, she  is always visually empowering everyday black women in a whole new world that she creates specifically for them.  For me, that difference, her difference, makes all the difference in the world.

In my most, immediate, everyday connection to Thomas’s wisdom and vision, I think about my own home and hope to see it as a space to think through/make black, female, visual spaces as a cocoon of and for black female power (see the collage of images of where I sit/read/meditate below— the collage also links to an interview with Thomas).  Thomas seems to make that kind of process/thinking central to her work.

But what Thomas especially makes me realize is that the creation of the kind of environments where black women can realize themselves must take the very notion of environment as space-language-rhetoric so much deeper.  There is a kind of everyday, material practice that her work evokes for me.

Thomas is not just using the right words of what it might mean to empower, see, and hear black women, she is actively doing it with her hands and every movement.  And for that reason, yes, I think she is creating a world, not just a formulaic code/string of words and good intentions.  It is exactly what black women need and deserve.

So, today, Thomas’s work seems the perfect way to let the old week go and the new one begin!

(This post is followed up in the next post with an attempt to reflect on the weight of experiencing Thomas’s full exhibit.)