Silhouetted figures rendered black stand against bright backgrounds of lime greens, poppy reds, hazy purples. Sometimes the figures are presented together in nature: outside under a starry night or among livestock. Other times, they're presented alone: soaking in a tub or wrapping themselves in a blanket. Strands of yarn left loose and exposed resemble paint drippings.
These rich narrative weavings come from "Diedrick Brackens: darling divined," on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through May 2021. The nine works in the exhibition show how Brackens fuses folk tales and forgotten histories with his own experiences as a Black man, a queer man, a son, a friend, a Southerner, and a custodian of family lore to tell new, expanding stories of identity.
The exhibit was organized by the New Museum in New York City, but for Brackens, currently based in Los Angeles, its run at the Blanton is something special. It's his first major museum show in his home state.
Brackens was born in the small town of Mexia and raised Southern Baptist in a military family. Although as an army brat Brackens moved around, he retained both a Southerness and a spirituality that appear in his art. It seems to reference his ancestral home and religious upbringing. His iconography in particular often feels biblical: a figure kneeling in prayer, a son receiving a blessing, men catching fish in a stream.
Yet while some of the images in his scenes are interpretable, others remain open-ended. "He's a great storyteller," says Veronica Roberts, Blanton curator of modern and contemporary art, "but the thing I admire most about his kind of narratives is [that] there are so many different ways for us to enter the story and connect to it, but then there's also not ever one tidy ending."
There's certainly no single story the show is telling. Power and fear, care and trauma, all exist simultaneously. In demigod, for example, a solid black figure stands against an intense red and blue background with outstretched arms, as if against a cross. A partially filled-in stallion walks in front of the figure, obscuring his body. Should we read the man as divine, as the title suggests? Some commentary on the might of the natural world? Or perhaps a meditation on the power and dangers of being in possession of a Black and queer body?
Brackens is known to draw from a diverse artistic canon to help inform his practice. He acknowledges influences from the Gee's Bend quilts and the collographs of Belkis Ayón, as well as contemporary artists like Alison Saar and Martin Puryear. He's also informed by literature, particularly poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikky Finney, and Essex Hemphill. Many of the titles of the pieces in his show come from Hemphill's poem "The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts."
"I stand waist deep/ in the decadence of forgetting./ The vain act of looking the other way./ Insisting there can be peace/ and fecundity without confrontation./ The nagging question of blood hounds me./ How do I honor it?" asks the speaker in Hemphill's poem. Later, he continues: "I wanted tenderness/ to belong to us/ more than food or money."
In Brackens' own in the decadence of silence, a figure crouches as two dogs bark and jump in his direction. A row of purple and green palm trees line the background. The figure appears calm as he faces these seemingly aggressive animals, but is danger near?
Despite the work's ambiguity, a tenderness is ever-present. "There's a way in which weavings have traditionally been used to provide warmth, and to provide comfort," explains Roberts, "and there's that history embedded in the materials, and so even if you're not wrapping yourself in one and you can't take it off the wall of the museum, there is a level of comfort and care that is embedded in the material."
Beauty and tragedy sit side by side, as the warmth and care imbued also tell stories of trauma, with endings reimagined. In bitter attendance, drown jubilee, two Black figures stand in a stream of flowing dark-blue and green water. One stands proudly, holding a giant fish in his hands. The other bends downward, reaching to catch a fish swimming through his legs. Below them, in an attached pane, sit open handcuffs.
The piece was inspired by a story that Brackens heard often growing up. In 1981, three Black teenagers drowned while in police custody after they were arrested at a Juneteenth celebration at Lake Mexia. The site had been home to one of the largest Juneteenth commemorations in the country, with as many as 20,000 people celebrating over a three-day weekend. The teenagers were being transported by boat when it capsized. The young men who drowned were known to be strong swimmers and many have alleged they were handcuffed, although the officers, who all survived and who were acquitted of any wrongdoing in 1982, have denied this.
"The loss of Black life, on the anniversary of Black liberation, at the epicenter of its celebration was gut-wrenching," Brackens explains in the show. "It was made all the more personal that it was situated in the place I was born, on land purchased by my own enslaved ancestors. I created the weaving as a way to tell the story and reimagine its violent ending. To honor the lives lost, the boys are returned to the world transformed as catfish."
For Brackens, the cotton material itself also carries deep significance. "This plant brought wealth to this country. Generations of my family toiled over its production and reaped no benefits," he states in the exhibition text. "I think often about the unknowable terrors and violence endured, all backdropped by King Cotton, and I know it is my life's work to try and make something beautiful out of this material.
"I hope it is some small healing tribute to my ancestors when I choose to sit at my loom and weave my stories."
“Diedrick Brackens: darling divined” is on view through May 16, 2021, at the Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. MLK. For more information, visit www.blantonmuseum.org.
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