“The Voice of Living History through the Eyes of The Fabric of Emancipation” at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

As an art administrator, I often toy with how best to curate thought provoking conversations while at the same time advancing knowledge about how our pasts impact on the future. I’ve dug deeply to examine liberty and cultural identity through The Fabric of Emancipation exhibition at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

One hundred fifty one years after enslaved Africans were freed and two hundred fifty one years after the construction of Morris-Jumel Mansion afford a unique opportunity for my organization, Harlem Needle Arts, to collaborate with the mansion to curate content which examines artists’ personal identity, cultural worth and what it means, or, does not mean to be liberated in the Americas.

The creative licenses of artists to spark conversations about the correlation between the history of the mansion and the social revolution of today create vocabulary and space for the viewer to evaluate the context of the Americas then and the Americas now.  The artists are griots who use thread as their base medium—collective works representing the intersection of the invisible, the interpretation of oral history, the trauma of silence, African rituals and the continuous struggle for liberation.  As the works reimagine the world of needle arts, the exhibition sheds light on the contemporary nature of the art forms that have a life span representing centuries of creating through needle arts.

Featuring eight artists, selected by a jury of art and design professionals, the exhibit highlights the ills of oppression but also provokes a call to action for communities to research and become culturally aware that Africans in the Americas have an identity which is fractured but stands on centuries of historical contributions.

The culmination of The Fabric of Emancipation addresses each artist’s reflection of the timeline of American existence. One might think that time has stood still since 1765—when the mansion was built—to the present. Ironically, during the life cycle of the exhibit the U.S. suffered six weeks of murders by the same system of oppression which targeted African Americans in 1619.

Excerpts from artists’ narratives:

Sara Bunn reimagines the time of Seneca Village—a community of freed Africans who owned their own land between 82nd and 89th Streets, now Central Park West. The community faced social injustices and the residents worked to stop the abduction of free people being sold back into slavery in the south—the 1857 version of today’s Harlem gentrification.

Michael Cummings echoes the civil rights movement through his art. He questions the Declaration of Independence and how content “we the people” applies to all people.

Ive Felix compelling vision uses the textile as a timeline to illustrate current gentrification of the surrounding neighborhoods of the mansion.

L’Merchie Frazier, educator, visual and performance artist, envisions the children of the black family of servants in the mansion. She questions who they were and the scope of their daily lives.

Laura R. Gadson poses the question: If we have liberty, where is the liberty of today?  She shares the shift of America from the Civil Rights Era, with only surface improvements, and, the disregard for the inclusion and equality for black people.

Dindga McCannon explores the story of an elder woman who survived the isms of the 50s to 2000s-racism, sexism, feminism – only to meet the new time of ageism.

Heather Marie Scholl works challenge her craft, artistic voice and personal development of anti-racism.

Rooted in traditions found throughout Africa, particularly Gelede and Egungun of the Yoruba (Nigeria), the collaborative and community based project of LaShawnda Crowe Storm featuring M. Eliza Hamilton Abegunde addresses historical and contemporary social ills and injustices rooted in American society.

The voice of consciousness is ever present in the exhibition while dispelling myths of the art forms of constructing with threads to show case expressions of contemporary, folk, and abstract. These stories in textile and design are tightly woven through each artist’s narrative of creating works through the media of quilt, embroidery, mix-media, clothing and fiber fusion.

The Fabric of Emancipation is an artistic force which illustrates truth while creating a force to move society forward. The exhibit stimulates citizens to think critically and radically about the humanity of people of African heritage.

Representing some of the countries’ preeminent fiber, textile and needle artists, the artists’ works are part of the permanent collections of the White House, Brooklyn Museum, Studio Museum of Harlem, American Museum of Art and Design, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Johnson Publications Co., Proctor and Gamble, Disney Corp. as well as private collections of Whoopi Goldberg, Bill and Camille Cosby. Works exhibited nationally and internationally: New York, Boston, Connecticut, Kentucky, Washington, DC and San Diego along with South Africa, Japan, and Barbados.

Curatorial, artistic direction and articles include2015-16, The Rhythmic Art of Thread, LeRoy Neiman Arts Center; 2015 Painted Threads: The evolution of Fiber, Textile and Needle Art in Contemporary Society, CaFA Barbados; 2014-15, Teresa Margoles: We have a Common Thread, Neuberger Museum of Art; Creative direction and commission for American Juju for the Tapestry of Truth, 2015; The Sacred Art of Haiti exhibition, lecture and workshop, The Gadson Gallery; 2014, The Siddi Reaction: An exhibition of quilts inspired by the African presence in India, in conjunction with the Gadson Gallery and Harlem Girls Quilting Circle; Bishop, Michelle,“Harlem Spins with Twain’s Twines”, Spin Off Magazine Summer 2007.

The Fabric of Emancipation is on exhibit through October 3, 2016 at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace, Manhattan, (212) 923-8008.

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Michelle Bishop is the curator of "The Fabric of Emancipation" in collaboration with the Morris-Jumel Mansion.  She is the founder and executive director of Harlem Needle Arts (HNA), a cultural arts institute designed to preserve and promote fiber, textile, and needle arts in the African Diaspora as well as provide resource development to improve the well-being of the community at large.

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