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Spirit Sisters in Conversation: Papermaking, Memory, and Legacies of the Diaspora

Summer 2021
Summer 2021
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Adebunmi Gbadebo and Kelly Taylor Mitchell speak to each other about common threads in their work related to land, memory, and material histories.

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kelly taylor mitchell (ktm): There are so many common threads in our work. Land, memory, and material histories are central. I was struck by your Fall 2020 solo show “Dilemma of Inheritance” at Claire Oliver Gallery [New York]. The exhibition title resonates with questions I ask in my work. The complexities of inheritance, especially for people of the African Diaspora, are vast. What is carried through memory? What is passed down? Where do the inherent and inherited collide? We share a use of nontraditional materials. You keep returning to Black hair collected from barbershops or gifted by the community and I to peanuts, popcorn, and black-eyed peas. Materials allow the work to relate to place, call upon memory, and carry the orality of an object. This work also subverts Western art historical expectations of what art materials can be and their capacity to convey and carry story.

adebunmi gbadebo (ag):There was an interview where you were saying, material and language are a guide for your process. And I have been thinking, especially lately, how my practice has really come out of thinking about material, and grounding my work in material that is connected to us as a people. I have also started exploring ideas about land in my practice, specifically how place informs the material.

ktm: I think our journeys run parallel to each other. We both are unraveling stories of our ancestors and following the paths they reveal. You are immersed in True Blue,South Carolina/True Blue Plantation. I am obsessed with the Great Dismal Swamp, straddling North Carolina and Virginia. The Great Dismal Swamp is the largest Maroon (formerly enslaved) colony in the United States. My ancestors escaped North Carolina’s Verona Plantation to the Swamp, a site of autonomy, only thirty minutes from the plantation and only about twenty minutes from where they eventually settled in Garysburg, North Carolina [at a] farmland called Mitchell Place. There is this triangulation of these incredibly charged locations in close proximity, which made me think of your True Blue research, it seemed like there was a similar, in some cases, lack of movement, and enduring connection to place. You mentioned to me how True Blue Plantation is now a hunting club, so is Verona Plantation. I am looking at the crop histories of Mitchell Place and making peanut papers. You’re utilizing indigo and rice, which I believe is coming from the crop histories of True Blue. Relationship to archive is something else that we share and I’m curious how you approach it. For me it is rooted in a speculative approach to history, not simply relying on information that is available to build an archive but actively imagining new information to be stored in collective memory. It is so smart that you call those paperworks history papers. In doing so you are creating a new history that addresses these exclusionary historical gaps.

ag: When I started looking intoTrue Blue my research led me to True Blue Plantation on Pawley Island, SouthCarolina. At the time, I didn’t realize I was looking at the wrong True Blue. The Pawley Island True Blue is currently a golf club. Then, through reading, searching, and reaching out to family, I learned my family was enslaved on TrueBlue in Fort Motte, South Carolina. So, both of those True Blues have become apart of my practice, especially as a point of comparison. Thinking about the physical landscape and what the spaces are now, one is this very manicured golf club. The other True Blue is completely overgrown by nature but exists as a hunting club, which used to be the church of my enslaved ancestors and cotton fields. Part of True Blue is a burial ground of enslaved people and their descendants, which is why our family is still connected to that land. I do think about these paperworks as a kind of new history paper, or new archive, or filling in the gap of this history that has been lost. It is an interesting line to toe, navigating my creative license as an artist but then also honoring and acknowledging real history, ancestors, and the names of enslaved people who reveal themselves through the research.

ktm: My work at its core is ancestor worship. This shows itself in the laborious process of making and the ongoing aftercare once the work is created. When my Pop-Pop passed away, my Nan offered me his research. He gathered and collected information about our family and the history of the Underground Railroad. After leaving North Carolina, my grandparents relocated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Like many places in the States, there’s an extensive Underground Railroad history there. Pop-Pop is a trusted source, there’s something that’s sacred or precious in that information and in the reality that I carry these stories in my DNA. I learned from his research about our family’s history of marronage and thus my ancestor’s efforts to live autonomously. I wanted to understand where else these acts of communal autonomy were happening. Quickly I learned that anywhere there are histories of enslavement, there are histories of marronage. Legacies of formerly enslaved people and indigenous people creating new communities often in harsh and hard-to access landscapes permeate the Diaspora. That exploration is how the work and the research has been expanding. A lot of what is shared relates to ritual, uses of plant life, and the practicing of African religious traditions, like masking. Identifying those throughlines and pulling them into my practice in different ways in order to construct identity and build speculative histories is where I am at now.

ag: When I went to True Blue, I got the chance to visit the Maroon woods along the river, where some of my ancestors settled and maintained their freedom as runaways. I was thinking about resistance. Not just the act of resisting through escaping enslavement, which was immensely dangerous, but also how they resisted while in bondage. By working with the plants, secretly practicing various African spiritual beliefs, they maintained their connection to their Africanness. To do that, in a system that tried to do everything to erase all that connected them to the continent, was a radical form of resistance. For us as artists, using materials that connect us to our ancestry is our resistance to this art canon.

ktm: We’ve talked about how material connects us to place but what I also value about nontraditional materials is that they are well suited for craft based processes. I’m employing sewing, beading, and embroidery, labor intensive skills that were taught to me by my mother and my grandmother. I make hand-embroidered and beaded masks that I wear during performances at charged sites like the swamp. I also use the masks in private performance with my textile objects, referencing the lineage of masking that we see across so many different African religious traditions like Yoruba Egungun or Hoodoo in the Southeast, or Candomble in Bahia. Masking allows adherents to embody an Orixa or access an ancestral force. Creating an object that acts as a conduit for accessing an ancestral force requires care and reverence. Processes that are time intensive allow me to create intimacy between artist and object. The outcome is no longer just an art object. It’s this utilitarian tool that I can use for ancestor worship. Scent comes into play in handmade paper and in textile works, as a way to trigger memory and recall place. I also utilize scent as a way to invite viewers into my work. For a long time, I felt reluctant to be vulnerable with my work, maybe because there is no line between personal practice and artist practice. I didn’t quite know how to navigate those conversations in a way that felt protective of my energy. Scent has emerged as a way to have a conversation that is more rooted in reciprocity.

ag: I started getting personal in my work when I started working withClaire Oliver Gallery. I was reluctant to explore such a densely personal story and history in this commercial environment. The level of care that may be required to really view the work and, like you said, the care to just sit with and understand the labor that went into a piece is immense. So for me, I use layering as a way of creating a space for care. I guess in the same way you use smell as an entry point, layers are my entry point. The first layer is color. Color can be so beautiful but have such a horrific violent history. The visceral textures of the cotton entangled with the hair and denim become the next point of entry. A lot of people who view the work are drawn to the tactlessness of the hair. Hair is something that we all have but at some point, the viewer realizes, this hair is specific, this is some Black kinky nappy hair. The next layer is the archival images that are scattered throughout the sheets. These documents are the first introduction of something representational in my work. Beforehand, my work was, for the most part, abstract. These histories have been severed and lost and buried. In order to decipher the work, you have to sift through all of these layers and look at every single sheet. That is my way of slowing down the process of viewing and creating a viewing space that is matched with the process of making the work. The main objective of an enslaved person was their labor. So now my labor is making 50 or 60 sheets at a time, beating down cotton and denim into a pulp. Making indigo vats. All that labor goes into the work and it’s like I become a surrogate of that type of laborious work that they endured. I’m in no way saying that my process of making my work is equivalent to what our ancestors experienced on the plantation. But I think it’s also my way of paying respect to their labor.

ktm: Your labor behind the vat manifests formally in quantity and scale, demanding a certain type of viewing.How are you thinking about this work in relation to the body?

ag: I knew I had to work larger because I really identify as a sculptor. I love how sculpture activates your entire body, not only in the making of the work but how you engage the sculpture. It asks your body, do I walk around it? Do I look up to it? Do you look down to it? I think it’s really interesting how sculpture kind of demands you view it in a certain way. For me, since I’m working in two dimensions, scale has been a way of achieving what a three-dimensional piece demands. What does it mean to have a 20-foot-tall sheet of paper with our bodies and histories just encrusted in the surface? Now look up to that! When I work with the smaller sheets, I install them in multiples to create large grid installations. You have to look up, down, around, across, and back up. It’s how I engage the body through two dimensions. Initially this kind of viewing experience became really important to my practice, when I was in an all-white space in art school at SVA. I was the only Black person in my graduating class. Scale was my passive-aggressive way of literally taking up white space and creating this dynamic where the work and our bodies through hair had full authority. Now it’s less about them and more about slowing down the viewing, and we both said it, forcing the viewer to participate in this laborious act of looking that matches this history, and even our own process. Do you implement personal care into your practice?

ktm: Many of my personal care practices are deeply attached to projects that I’m working on in the studio, like sewing. This idea of slowness that we keep talking about, can then be applied to so many other parts of my life. I’m attached to the repetitive motion of embroidery and beading. Sewing has been away for me to introduce color into my practice in a way that has felt comforting and celebratory. Similarly, I am making clay beads, red low-fire clay beads, a project I do in my studio without a purpose other than accumulation. After you’ve been making the beads for a few days, you have this sort of red stain on your fingertips. I’ve also allowed myself to spend time with food as a care practice. I mean, talk about material histories! Recipes, stories, and the memories attached to cooking. . . . I talk a lot about my work as utilitarian, serving this role for me in personal practice of ancestor worship. Bearing that in mind, I’m incredibly aware of the fact that I’m amalgamating different ritual traditions that I have been learning about in my research of these autonomous communities. I’m not engaged in these practices as an ordained adherent. I really try to make it clear that I am making these objects that I believe hold these spiritual, utilitarian functions just for me. I couldn’t hand you one of these masks and say, okay, now go access an ancestral force. I don’t have that spiritual authority. I’m not ordained in these traditions, but I can access ancestor worship. It is something that we all have access to, it’s an arena where we can’t assign ownership. I’ve been making handmade paper iterations of magnified sections of one of my utilitarian spiritual items, the mask, and then offering it as a two-dimensional, large-scale, handmade paper work, allowing it to solely be an art object in the way that other works in my practice are not.

ag: I asked you about personal care because I get asked this question a lot since the foundation of my practice is collecting hair from people. A lot of people especially on the continent understand how much spiritual energy is steeped in our hair and I’m taking all this energy that is locked in strands of hair. How I acknowledge that is by letting the hair be for a while. I need to create this period where I’m just listening and understanding the hair before I just project my ideas on the hair. It’s really exciting how you talked about making these red clay beads. I’ll be going back to True Blue Plantation to unearth the dirt from True Blue Cemetery and transform it into a new body of ceramic work at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia. The profit from this series will be used to maintain parts of True Blue so that its descendants will have access to this site. I’m guided by evidence that soil can be a repository for memory and healed by activating its history. I’m like, OMG, we’re both working with red clay. We’re like spirit sisters. One thing Adrienne Wheeler, my art mom, always says that her late aunt and sculptor Irene Wheeler used to tell her is how sometimes the universe sends out ideas, and multiple people grab on to them at once. To see and get to know your work through this conversation and to now know the similarities, I think we both reached up and grabbed on to these ideas that connect our practices. It’s really beautiful.

ktm: It is beautiful.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, And Don’t You Forget It from History Paper series, 2018, 13 x 19 inches, silkscreen of archival family portrait on hair paper. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York. facing page: Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Bathing in Lake Drummond and Mask #6. Image still from performance at Great Dismal Swamp. Hand-embroidered and beaded mask, 10 x 6 inches. 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, Production I, 2020, 84 x 36 x 3 inches, human Close detail of Production I. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York. Black hair, cotton, “rice” paper, denim, indigo, hair dye, silkscreen prints. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Close detail of Production I. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Paper Sequins (work-in-progress), 2020, varying sizes, 3 to 5 inches round each, pulp-painted paper sequins with pigmented cotton, onion, grommet, and food storage mesh inclusions. Courtesy of the artist.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, True Blue: 18th Hole, 2019, 92 x 233 x 3 inches, human Black hair, cotton, denim, indigo, hair dye, “rice” paper, silkscreen prints. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, #9 from True Blue: 18th Hole, 2019, 22 x 18 x 1 inches, human Black hair, cotton, indigo dye, “rice” paper, silkscreen prints. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Up River, 2018, 17 x 11 inches, milkweed, peanut, flax and abaca handmade paper. Edition of 3 handset, letterpress-printed, unbound artist books. Self-authored text. Courtesy of the artist.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, Uprooted, 2018, 30 x 17 x   inches, silkscreen print (portrait of artist’s great-great grandma) on human Black hair paper, thread, synthetic braids. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Kelly Taylor Mitchell, Performative Object (Portal) #2, 2019, 6 x 3 feet, stretched found fabric, Bahia popcorn photo gel medium transfer, hand sewing, popcorn kernels, hand-strung popcorn, ceramic beads, smells of buttered popcorn. Utilized in private performance. Courtesy of the artist.