*Foto in evidenza: L’Merchie Frazier, Who’s in My Neighbourhood, 2018. 80” x 45. Photo: Craig Bailey
L’Merchie Frazier is a Boston-based artist, poet, activist, historian and educator. Her quilts explore themes of black identity in the Americas and beyond, and her exhibition, LookBooks for Liberation: Visual Storytelling, is featured at the Festival of Quilts for its 20th anniversary at the NEC in Birmingham from 3-6 August 2023. Merchie Frazier will speak about her work at Visual Storytelling: Making Freedom, as part of the Festival of Quilts lecture programme, at 11.30am on Saturday 5 August.
L’Merchie, it’s an honour to have you join us at The Festival of Quilts for our 20th anniversary. Your creative work sets out to document, reveal, and amplify the voices of the unheard, the unseen, the hidden in Black and indigenous people’s history. Can you tell us more about that and about some of the stories that your quilts tell?
My one life work, whether it’s quilts, poetry or jewellery, is about my life journey, ‘Save Me From My Amnesia’. As a descendant of people detached from the African mainland as our founding base, then through the Middle Passage come to North America, we are in a state of always trying to reclaim and restore. I am a member of Women of Color Quilters Network and quilts I create are a part of that journey.
Remembering becomes this whole goal of a life journey, of self-discovery for First Nation and indigenous people and African descendants; people who have been disenfranchised, either by those who obtained property by theft of land and people, those who were divested of their property by theft, or by being deemed property. With the intervention of Columbus, there was a whole reordering of things. Things that had names already were renamed, languages and religions were replaced; oral traditions unearthed. These stories are now becoming written documents.
I have been Director of Education for the Museum of African American History for 20 years. The stories that really intrigue me are to do with the founding of this country as laws were established. The 1641 Body of Liberties adopted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony established the protection of rights and freedoms for the English while it established slavery legally for African and Indigenous people. The stories that follow are about people negotiating and dying for their freedom are the stories I tell in my quilts; people like Crispus Attacks and Phillis Wheatley
I want my quilts to be, as Carolyn Mazloomi, founder of Women of Color Quilters Network says: “a soft landing for hard stuff”. I want audiences to be able to look at my work, to have discourse, to leave things in my quilts if they like. I sometimes make pockets for discussion or questions which is a very valuable and non-threatening tool. Quilts are my preferred medium to tell these stories because they are a medium of collage where things that wouldn’t normally be together can come together, sewn together in a familiar format of cloth. It’s a magic space. This visual object impacts the viewer as a vessel of memory.
The LookBook quilts, also known as the Quilted Chronicles series are a celebration of the United Nations proclamation for 2015 to 2024 to be the international decade for people of African descent, with a theme of recognition, justice, and development. As we approach the end of that decade, what part do you think art has to play in recognition, justice, and development for people of African descent?
I think art has the power to establish questions and answer some of what might be solutions for justice and reclamation, reconciliation and repair. I go back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to look at artists like Edmonia Lewis, one of the first recognized African American women sculptors working in the 1860s who endured racism at Oberlin College, was tried, acquitted, then came to Boston and became an abolitionist at 17 years old. She expatriated to Italy to continue her work. Her work points to the wholeness of Black and indigenous people who are to be valued; to use a 21st century term, ‘matter’. The same for Phillis Wheatley’s poems in 1773. Using their art these people resisted the definitions of them by the outside world and made proclaimed pronouncements about who and what they were, how they function, what is their culture. This continued through the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power era to now with artists intentionally citing issues like the uproar at police brutality in America. Black art addresses questions of reckoning and repair, trust and responsibility.
One of my quilts, I Am the Story, shows a young man whose portrait I did in nylon. He is dressed in a garment constructed with the caution tape found at crime scenes. The background he sits on is the thinsulate fabric found in lunch boxes to control temperature. What I’m trying to say has to do with my own history. My two sons would leave my house every day and I wasn’t sure what ‘temperature’ they were going to meet when they were out there. I wasn’t sure If they needed to watch their backs on an ongoing basis, whether they were doing something right or wrong. It’s a mother’s cry. To see this young man have to be cautious and maybe also wear his warning to people who see him. These are the kind of stories that may not depict a specific person but rather a universal condition that exists for a group of identified people.
As a historian and textile artist, we’re interested to see that you integrate archived historical records such as speeches, maps, and media reports into your quilts. What do those historical elements bring to the stories that you tell?
When we think about timelines, we can also think about the space we occupy, the geographies of those timelines and the people, places, and events that happen. That is a question to me: where and how did this happen? Who was there? We think of travel in its abundance as 20th and 21st century phenomena, but the spaces occupied by these historic African American figures is amazing. These archives hold our stories. The Quilted Chronicles depict the stories of people who are making their marks, and the mapping of territory and intellectual capacity. I feel it my honor and privilege to be able to look into the lives of people and see what spaces they’re affecting.
The African American quilting tradition has its roots in slavery. What role do you see future generations of African American quilters playing in continuing that tradition?
As African Americans and as quilters, we’re story tellers. African American quilting has come across centuries of fabric production. In my research, as I went back into what scholars have written, I discovered that in 13th century Nigeria, the bow tie patterns incorporated on equestrian cloths were made by men. We see patterns that are simultaneously in other cultures and, as they cross the Atlantic, they become part of the language of the cloth of those who were enslaved and a bridge for understanding the Black Atlantic world. It is not just that quilting is germane to African people, but that the retention of some of the patterns that were on the West Coast of Africa, in the Congo, in Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, are important to our existence and survival.
Then they become a part of what is truly American as an anchor of an art form. We can see African American painters whose mothers were quilters, like John Biggers, who depicts quilt patterns in his paintings. There is a language present, a sacred geometry. The use of the geometric form for communication is a part of this language. Sanford Biggers (John’s nephew), also an artist, uses quilt tops which he distorts and abstracts to tell his more contemporary stories in the 21st century.
Quilting is a language that has brought us together in the quilting bees, where enslaved women met at night after they had done their work, to have communion and fellowship and pass on this tradition. Quilting is tied to our resistance to slavery, a part of our fight genealogy. This practice has been kept alive through the arc of centuries. It is an important story that we are hoping to keep going as a mechanism of cultural survival.
The American Museum of Arts and Design, Smithsonian Institute, and the White House are just some of the collectors of your art. What does it mean to you to have your work and the people that feature in it, represented in these institutions?
I think that the institutions drive the canon and define what’s even gets defined as art. To have my work in collections that are institutionally framing Western art is significant for me. I did not go about my work for it to be collected. I created and still do my work as artistic production that is genuinely and authentically flowing from ideas that hit me and that I deem important to share. The value on a piece, I think, is personal. For an institution to place a value on it is significant because art in itself is so subjective.
There are valid parameters that are put on by institutions to qualify what is art and what is the best of art because I think we are all creators of art. I live with that every day. As these qualifiers come to you to say, “We want to collect”, it does give you a lift that your artistic expression is being acknowledged. I do know that someone saw my work and appreciated it, so I’m grateful for that.
One of the latest collectors was the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I had no idea how important that institution was. As they were grappling with the event of George Floyd’s death, they collected one of my works and dedicated it to the memory of George Floyd. For me, that uplifted a moment that I was purposely entering the discussion for, lifting that question of who and what we are. For that institution to collect my work, it means they ‘see’ me and it is material representation for causes to widen our scope of ways to confront and remember the incident of George Floyd, to document it and have conversation that honors his humanity.
On this side of the Atlantic, there is this incorporation of African American and diasporic art as statements, intentionally to raise awareness. The institutions do not want to be outmoded. I have served as an advisor to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston in bringing the quilt show, Fabric of a Nation, to recognize the part of the story that African American and Black people imbody. This was one of the first opportunities to show the quilts of Harriet Powers from the 1890s, a woman who had been enslaved and was freed during the Civil War.
If people do not see themselves reflected in our institutions’ walls, what will they do? They won’t come. This is the very delicate dance that’s being played right now. I don’t say that it’s being played perfectly either. I say that it is an attempt to be in the arena and the trajectory of that we know. It is not the end, but this is where we are now.
You are a former artist in residence for the City of Boston and use art, including quilting, to work with people experiencing trauma, crisis and addiction. What benefits do you feel are gained from integrating artists, makers, and other creatives into civic life?
I think civic empowerment has been a challenge for people disenfranchised from the city and from policy makers. Artists were invited by the city government to make proposals for a particular department to see how that empowerment could be improved. I chose Public Health and the Department for Women’s Success. I worked with a residency of women recovering from addiction and homelessness as part of an academic program that involved the agencies that would help the women rehabilitate their lives. I was delighted to be able to be in a space with them, and to have art (quilting and poetry) as our vehicle of communication.
The year-long programme was called “When Women Succeed: The Quilted Path”. The idea was that we would come together, form a group dynamic and work collectively, with supportive government functions. Words were shared, quilts were created, and the women were ecstatic about their stories told in the quilts. There would be some down moments, of course, but they would talk openly. The quilting and poetry provided a space of community where they felt safe sharing. Even if words were harsh, there was still this idea of: I’m not your enemy, I am here with you the make a change.
The women surprised themselves. I saw this happening organically as they were quilting. One might not know the right thing or the best choice to make in producing the image that they wanted. Another would come over and help. These were women who had mostly never sewn before. To enable them to be expressive in that form was truly magnificent. When they showed their quilts at events at City Hall and in a local theater, there were moments that brought all of us to tears. It was very transforming. The women saw themselves as mattering in their city, saying: “This is where I was. This is where I am now with this workshop. This is how I am recovering.” It created less space between the health and wealth gap. It was difficult to leave that residency, but the quilts were making their rounds and were installed in the women’s facility to leave a legacy.
As we celebrate 20 years of the quilting community coming together here at The Festival of Quilts, what does it mean to you to be part of this worldwide quilting family?
The quilting community the world over has a way of crossing language barriers through cloth. Cloth is our familiar agent. Once we are born, we are wrapped in it immediately. We wear it all our lives and we’re wrapped in it again when we meet our demise. The idea that this can be a unifying element for all humans is very important to me.
I also think it leverages the work of women. Even though men in the African continent and 13th century were making quilts for horses, quilting has been considered a domestic art; a piecing together of things that might be discarded but now have a repurposed form for expression in art and a force for storytelling. Placing together fragments to make a whole is a metaphor for our fragmented world.
When you asked me about the decade of the people of African descent, it made me think of the newly elected Vice President of Colombia, Francia Márquez, who wears African cloth. This cloth is so much a part of our experience that it is raised to the level of helping us to understand each other, helping us to at least be on the platform, to have discussion, helping us to have some utilitarian and artistic experience, even identifying in governing.
This whole legacy for me is lit by the fact that my maternal grandfather, James Dooley, was a tailor, making beautiful garments for people. My mother, Theesa Dooley Frazier, followed him, and became very interested in the cloth and textile production, crochet, tatting, knitting. She told me one day that my grandfather made quilts out of his upholstery fabric for his children to keep warm. At night they’d have to stoke the fire, so he made them these very heavy quilts to keep warm so they wouldn’t have to stoke the fire.
I now realize that this domestic art, as it is defined, becomes a bridge for human activity that we probably take for granted in most cases. I’m very proud to be a member of the quilting community and especially of the Women of Color Quilters Network, founded by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, which has social justice, racial equity, and the telling of the African American story as an American story, as its purpose. I am honored to be among those women and men who make that organization viable and to the larger community universally, to raise and lift our presence globally, in this International Festival of Quilts.