African American Fabrics

SlaveryMASK is a lavender batik featuring a motif of shackles and a slave wearing a bit-mask.

With all the technological breakthroughs in digital textile design, so much is available nowadays to fabric enthusiasts.  Formal artistic training is optional, while creativity and imagination are key. And though the skills and expertise involved in textile design are usually relegated to the domestic sphere of “crafts,” I believe the special body of knowledge that is derived from this area of creative expression truly reflects our humanity in a very real and profound sense.

Of course, black people have been deeply connected to the material history of textiles in this country and were involved in every aspect of the industry from the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton fiber, to the innovation and manufacture of finished goods. Needless to say, American slavery and the triangular trade that generated it was a brutalizing and dehumanizing process and yet, somehow, African Americans understood that even the most mundane and routine design interventions were necessary to help counter the highly organized systems of power and exploitation they faced. Without question, through the refashioning of a fundamental notion of what it means to be a US citizen, African American influence in the textile technologies (along with their inestimable impact in the areas of music, storytelling, and metalwork) was critical. African enslaved persons deliberately and methodically invented and arranged ingenious networks of emancipatory codes and sign systems into their day-to-day rhetoric of American civic life even as they employed the very technologies that helped to enslave them.

 Adam Banks points this out brilliantly when he writes about Ozella McDaniel Williams who, until her death in 1998, carried with her the knowledge of how to painstakingly place different color knots on quiltwork in order to direct freedom seekers out of slavery and towards a mnemonic path to freedom through the Underground Railroad.  And even  David Walker, who composed the seminal “Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,” purposely designed the document at a size that could be easily concealed once sewn into the fashions Walker sold at his early 19th century clothing store. This way the idea of freedom and emancipation could spread without risking detection by those who would rather thwart liberty.

For all these reasons and more (namely, the fact that my sewing pastime has had me on the lookout for all sorts of cute new materials), I am so digging what Kweli Kitwana is doing with fabrics. Based on her keen awareness of African American history and cultural signifiers, she is designing fabric with some of the most unusual prints I’ve seen in a while. Scenes from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era (as well as some traditional West African motifs) are reinterpreted with fresh, contemporary colors — not the same old primaries and earth tones. Kitwana also has a very clever sense of irony in her designs. With her occasional selections of gothic slavery scenes juxtaposed against pastel backgrounds or arranged as flower petals, her fabric prints display a thematic gravitas that is hard to deny, despite their distinctively attractive character.

Here are some of my favorites:

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July 30, 2011. African Americans, art, cute, design, fashion, history, rhetorics, slavery, style, technology, textiles. 4 comments.

Quite Cute


MAC just stole my dissertation idea. ;p The cosmetics company’s latest spring line is all purpley-pink and pastel. The image to the left is a screenshot of the “Quite Cute” promotional campaign. Cute is so in right now. Alas, such is the risk of cuteness; sometimes being embarrassingly fashionable.

Karl Lagerfeld has nothing to do with MAC — he heads the house of Chanel.  In my opinion, the man is absolutely hilarious!  While watching a documentary about the man and his impact on the notoriously invidious fashion industry, Lagerfeld Confidential, I howled with laughter. If Roland Barthes had been into sewing instead of writing, he would’ve been Lagerfeld. (Punchline… punctum — what’s the diff?)

Also, Lagerfeld discovered Kimora Lee Simmons — who in turn founded the now defunct Baby-Phat clothing company. Weirdly, when Simmons was not much more than 13 years old, Lagerfeld plucked her from the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri, dressed her as a child-bride and paraded her across the world’s fashion runways.  The man practically raised her. Currently, Simmons holds licensing rights to the Hello Kitty image for a jewelry line she designs. I think the quotes below explain exactly why, at least judging from her reality show, Simmons is so, um, very… eccentric. Here are some of Lagerfeld’s thoughts on fashion, beauty, children, and (of course) cuteness:

“If you want social justice, be a civil servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair.”

“Life is not a beauty contest, some [ugly people] are great. What I hate is nasty, ugly people…the worst is ugly, short men. Women can be short, but for men it is impossible. It is something that they will not forgive in life…they are mean and they want to kill you.”

“[Children] grow so fast, and having adult children makes you look 100 years old. I don’t want that.”

“Sunglasses are like eyeshadow. They make everything look younger and prettier.”

“[Sunglasses are] my burka…I’m a little nearsighted, and people, when they’re nearsighted, they remove their glasses and then they look like cute little dogs who want to be adopted.”

April 9, 2011. Tags: . beauty, children, cute, design, family, fashion, film, harajuku, style. Leave a comment.

designer babies

What image comes to your mind when you think of the perfect baby?

Even though the rhetoric of the body as it pertains to the area of biotechnology is not my field of specialty, I am interested in how this subject converges with my work when looked at from the standpoint of reprogenetics or the industry of so-called designer babies.

I admire the work of Dorothy Roberts who eloquently explains how reprogenetic technologies prescribe the qualities and characteristics of the “perfect baby” as being intrinsically so. Roberts reminds that just because something is more technologically advanced doesn’t make it more liberating, or even progressive for that matter. She goes on to caution against a profit driven situation “where minority people’s eggs that aren’t desirable to most white couples for reproductive purposes (where race matters a lot) will be purchased on the cheap for stem cell research (where race won’t matter that much).”

Even those privileged women, who might seem to gain advantage from these technologies, will be increasingly subject to more intensive surveillance that is generated through reprogenetics. In effect, women from all areas of life will be subject to greater social and moralistic scrutiny because of the inordinate burden of responsibility that has traditionally been placed on women to always make the “right” kinds of choices.

April 2, 2011. African Americans, babies, children, cute, design, economics, gender, race, sex & sexuality, technology. Leave a comment.

A “Cute Kitten Theory” of Race

“‘You think you so cute!’  I swung at her and missed, hitting Pecola in the face.  Furious at my clumsiness, I threw my notebook at her, but it caught her in the small of her velvet back, for she had turned and was flying across the street against traffic.
Safe on the other side, she screamed at us, ‘I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos.  I am cute’”(Morrison 73).

“We were sinking under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen’s last words.  If she was cute – and if anything could be believed, she was – then we were not. And what did that mean?  We were lesser.  Nicer, brighter, but still lesser” (Morrison 74).

Of course many of you will recognize this excerpt  from  Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  It’s the frequently anthologized scene, sometimes referred to as “The Coming of Maureen Peale.”   I believe this  scene from literature really illustrates my conceptualization of cuteness as a racial rhetoric.

A desperate chain of events ensues because of Pecola’s wish for her eyes to magically turn blue like Shirley Temple and the white baby dolls molded in the screen idol’s image. And, along with Claudia and Frieda, having to constantly hear all the surrounding adults describe the little white girls as perfectly lovely, the fragile Pecola is pushed to the breaking point. The arrival of the wealthier and lighter skinned Maureen Peale exacerbates the situation because of the way she is shown favoritism by the teachers and parents in Morrison’s semi-autobiolgraphical Ohio community in which the novel is set. The girls in the schoolyard are stunned when the favored newcomer proudly and maliciously asserts the ostensible fact that she is cute and they are not.

"Little Flower"

My dissertation is about how, similarly to Toni Morrison, this issue of “cuteness” served as productive motivation for Carl Owens and other African American artists of that generation. Owens was an African American artist and illustrator, known for a certain genre of printed paintings.  I think of his most famous image “Little Flower” as the epitome of cute kitten blackness. That the above image could be viewed as agitprop is not necessarily problematic for me. At least not, if we think about agitprop in a nuanced and more complicated way.

December 18, 2010. art, Carl Owens, children, cute, design, dolls, literature. 1 comment.

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