Artist Diedrick Brackens uses textiles to tell stories of race, injustice

Johansson Projects/Diedrick Brackens/Courtesy

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Spinning a yarn, hanging by a thread, weaving a tale: English is full of figurative language borrowed from the textile arts. Why does this art form, which includes practices such as weaving, sewing, quilting and knitting, operate so well at the level of metaphor? Why is the work of fabric’s production and modification so suited to these figures of speech? At Johansson Projects in Oakland, Diedrick Brackens reminds us of these questions with “This Is Real Life,” an 11-piece textile exhibit in which the language of fabric speaks loudest of all.

Historically, textile arts have been relegated to the domestic sphere. Knitting, quilting and embroidery were thought of as women’s work — that of a homemaker’s drudgery, at worst, or a kind of depoliticized handiwork, at best. Brackens’ textiles are neither dull nor apolitical. In fact, matters of power, politics and identity are often at the fore.

“I can use the medium (weaving) to talk about my identities as a black, gay man in America,” Brackens explained in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I pull on textile traditions from the cultures that are a part of my makeup: European tapestry, strip-woven kente cloth of Ghana, and the quilts of the American south. Through weaving and sewing, I am able to make a fabric that fully integrates all parts of my experience.”

Pieces laudable for their political thrust include “10-79,” a portrait of Eric Garner and Michael Brown titled for the police code that signals a coroner call. The portrait, hand-woven from strips of orange, green and blue fabrics, measures 2 feet wide and 66 inches long. Portions of the work have been bleached, and a handprint, a reference to the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture popularized by the #blacklivesmatter protest movement and the police chokehold in which Eric Garner was placed, anchors the upper left corner of the work. Horizontal bands of creamsicle coral punctuate the length of the work. In places, these meticulous rows of stitches are interrupted by scarlet chenille clusters, woven wound marks that reference the bloodshed of police brutality.

Even without knowing the social context of pieces such as c “10-79,” Brackens’ work retains its vividness and urgency. As one gallery visitor remarked, the pieces feel “full” — they layer color, texture and pattern to mesmerizing effect. “Untitled,” for example, is an 84-inch-by-81-inch tapestry that Brackens explains is “made in the style of High Queer Americana,” a tapestry sewn from strips of hand-woven fabric in a mosaic of colors and patterns. There are pink-and-white stripes, houndstooth strips and neon yellow accents, with the frayed ends of finishing stitches left visible and gleaming rectangles of thread woven atop fabric. These bursts of texture and color are distributed in rows throughout the length of the piece, like kaleidoscopic bands of DNA frozen in agar during gel electrophoresis.

Brackens’ process, like the visual experience of his works, is heavy duty. Brackens utilizes both commercial dyes and unconventional colorants, such as wine, tea and bleach. Each finished work is sewn from hand-woven fabric, which Brackens makes in strips measuring between 3 and 7 inches using a floor loom. The strips, which vary from 3 to 8 feet long, are then sewn together, with a finished work requiring between two weeks and four months to complete. The labor intensiveness of fabric production, usually hidden by contemporary industrialized manufacturing processes, is something Brackens has certainly probed. “Weaving is a craft that requires a certain amount of care and following of steps,” he acknowledges. “If you know what steps to follow you can produce a tangible object.”

Poet Charles Simic once lamented the gap between language and object when he wrote: “Wanted: a needle swift enough to sew this poem into a blanket.” In “This Is Real Life,” the poem is the blanket — Brackens’ textiles speak to the fabric of black lives and queer lives and to matters of craft and care. Brackens has created art that speaks and, above all, art that begs to be looked at.

“This is Real Life” will be showing until April 25 at Johannson Projects in Oakland. 

Contact Sarah Elizabeth Adler at [email protected].