By Anne Cross
At The Art Dept. through October 31st
As I moved through the exhibition space at The Art Dept. in Fishtown on a recent Friday evening, surveying the work of artist and Art Dept. Director Emily Carris, I found myself drawn to one photograph in particular. With its soft focus and evident long exposure, the photograph presents a blurred seascape, the kinetic motion of the waves rendered into abstract strokes and the distinction between the sea and the sky made indeterminate. Though we understand that we are looking out toward the horizon, toward some unknown destination, the photograph leaves us caught between the grounding of the beach and the frenzy of the waves. Unable to connect with either, we are brought into a state of liminality, of disorienting transition between some pre-voyage existence and a place across the sea.
In the field of anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity that occurs in the middle stage of rituals. During a liminal state, participants stand at the threshold between their previous identity and the one that will be established when the ritual is complete. It is in this sense that the photograph might serve as a thesis statement for the larger body of work that comprises Carris’s exhibition, Reclaimed, now on view at The Art Dept. until October 31. The exhibition serves as a long-standing self-portrait of the artist’s search for self through an engagement with the legacy of her enslaved African and African American ancestors. In Reclaimed, Carris engages with the history of gendered craft production, the role of women in memorialization, ancestral symbolism, racist caricature, and a deep sense of materiality to present an exhibition that is both timely and moving.
Entitled The Water is a Graveyard (2008), the above photograph depicts a view of the Atlantic Ocean taken from the shores of Liverpool, England, a site from which many ships departed during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Completed as part of Carris’s graduate studies in England, the photograph is one of the earliest works in the exhibition and illustrates Carris’s feeling at the time of being “an ocean away from her family,” distant and removed from that which helped to structure her identity. In response to this disorientation, Carris began to engage with the visual and material culture of enslavement, producing works that recall the liminality of the Middle Passage, as millions of men, women and children were transformed from African human beings into American slaves by a brutal capitalist system.
The themes that are present in The Water is a Graveyard are echoed in another photographic work entitled RIP/Nigger Island (2002-2017). To produce this work Carris has ripped in half a self-portrait from a previous series entitled “Whitest Black Girl,” and re-photographed the torn image. She then covered this new image with salt obtained from the North Atlantic Ocean, near a site once known as “N—-r Island.” In this work Carris’s eyes appear both open and closed, and her head seems slightly tilted back as if she were floating on water. Across her face runs a violent, uneven gash, making it clear that it would be difficult to repair the image and once again make the artist whole. A thick layer of salt crystals covers the whole of the work, depositing a crystalline layer at the bottom of the shadow box frame. Here Carris’s fractured self-image is layered with the material history of her ancestors and their experience with the environment of that island.
Perhaps the most arresting work in the exhibition is Suture Self (2017). In this work Carris appropriates the famous Civil War carte-de-visite known as “The Scourged Back,” which depicts a black man, later identified as a formerly enslaved man named Gordon, displaying his scarred back to the camera. The physical traces of earlier whippings on his back serve as a testament to the cruelty of his enslaved past. Employed as a powerful tool in the abolitionist movement, the image was later republished in Harper’s Weekly at a moment when such evidence of Southern brutality was meant to strengthen Northern support for the war effort and Emancipation.
For this piece, Carris embroidered over Gordon’s scars using linen thread dyed with South Carolina indigo, one of the primary commodities whose demand contributed to the system of racialized slavery. First successfully cultivated by 16 year-old Eliza Lucas in 1739, indigo became South Carolina’s second largest cash crop by the 1740s, a rapidly-expanding industry that was dependent on the knowledge and labor of enslaved indigo-dyers from West Africa. By using indigo thread to suture Gordon’s scars, Carris reclaims the labor and knowledge of those unnamed, enslaved indigo-dyers to bind the edges of Gordon’s wounds so that he (and they) might heal. The watery topography of the multi-hued blue embroidery returns us to the liminal place of the Middle Passage, to the uncertain space between pain and healing, but with Carris’s material performance of grief and reclamation serving as the transforming ritual instead of the brutality of enforced dislocation.
There is a distinctively performative aspect to this work, as Carris learned new crafts imprinted with the legacy of her ancestors to create works that not only interweave her experience with theirs, but also make tangible her process of grief and healing. Characterized by the artist as a “backroom performance,” the resulting works render visible her intimate ritual of grief, as well as the histories, memories, and skills of those that have been otherwise rendered invisible by the dominant culture.
Other works throughout the installation continue this engagement with the often-forgotten role of black women in craft production, memorialization and healing. In Birth Announcement for Those Who Will and Who Will Never Be (2017) Carris draws on the historic tradition of protection quilts. Filled with cotton batting from the 1800s, Carris’s quilt pattern is improvisational, an index of her material performance as well as a folkloric talisman against the devil. According to the artist, traditional African American quilts often employed improvisational patterns because the devil would be unable to follow the broken lines. The quilt’s back, dyed with indigo, serves as a blank canvas of both infinite hope and sadness against the multicolored front, which incorporates dyes made from historic iron shackles, as well as catnip, cinnamon, goldenrod, rye, safflower, and tansy – all known abortifacients. These dyes recall the legacy of rape and forced childbirth of black women in the United States. Carris’s work thus moves the viewer to consider the impossible situations that many enslaved women had to face as they sought forms of resistance against the control of their bodies.
A final work, entitled Thug (2017), adapts the histories of Carris’s enslaved ancestors for a new age and offers a sense of the struggle that lies ahead. Again taking its inspiration from African and African American protection quilts, the work consists of a commercially made hooded sweatshirt embellished with patches of historic and naturally-dyed fabric. Displayed hanging from the ceiling on a thin wire, the hood of the sweatshirt rises slightly upward, lifting our gaze from the body toward the sky, as we follow a pattern of black triangles on a yellow ground. According to the artist, when used in quilts, shapes like triangles could be used to symbolize strength and freedom, and quilts with black were often hung on the line to indicate a vacancy or safe house on the Underground Railroad. Carris’s hooded sweatshirt thus echoes the ways that African and African American textile practices served as communicative systems, conveying stories, instructions, and prayers for safekeeping.
Addressing the many young children of color who are denied innocence in America, a poem by J. Terrie (Smith) is embroidered in red thread across the chest of the sweatshirt, where the heart would be:
They think that bullets
Will annihilate you
But don’t they know you are breath
The very substance of your ancestor’s prayers
You are everlasting
This past July, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters famously evoked the procedural phrase of “reclaiming [her] time” to assert her right to speak as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (a white man) attempted to evade her questioning. Like Waters, the exhibition Reclaimed offers both a powerful critique of systemic oppression and an assertion of self-identity and right to visibility in the midst of a cultural and political landscape that continues to deny women of color these very things. By engaging with her ancestors’ forgotten history through archival research and craft production, Carris has rendered visible not only her own identity in transition, but also the legacies of racial injustice that we must all contend with.
I might argue that our country is in its own current state of liminality, as our increased awareness of systemic racism and the weight of violent tragedies have placed us on a threshold between the nation we thought we once were and the nation that we will become. Like the experience embodied in The Water is a Graveyard, we are looking out toward some unknown destination, our future uncertain. Importantly, liminality implies not only uncertainty and disorientation, but also a loss, an inherent grief as we leave our previous identities behind. Though Carris’s work engages with the experience of liminality, the title Reclaimed implies a firm declaration of being, a sense of grounding even amidst this transition and loss. In this way the exhibition seems to embody the hope for something new that might be gained from this transition, yet still inflected with the history of both suffering and beauty.
Anne Cross is a Philadelphia-based art historian, writer, and curator. She is a third year PhD student in Art History at the University of Delaware, where her research focuses primarily on photography and print culture of the long nineteenth century. She is currently working on a dissertation that explores the publication of images of atrocity in the nineteenth century American illustrated mass press.