In November 2015, I conducted an interview with Jacqueline Bishop, coming out of our conversations about the “Explorations IV: Seven Women Artists” exhibition at the National Gallery. That exhibition, among other things, asked why there is so little consideration, in the (art-)historical and material record, for the material creative production of Jamaican women, other than what has been consecrated as “fine art.” And what has been so consecrated is constrained by narrow definitions of art and, closely related to that, a myopic, class-based view of who is an “artist.” This somehow seems to affect women’s creative production more than men’s — almost all the artists who have been recognized as “Intuitives” are men, for instance, in part because they more typically work in media that can be recuperated as “fine art” such as “painting” and “sculpture.” Another reason is that women’s social roles have traditionally been defined differently across the class spectrum, with little space or recognition given to creative expressions of lower class women. This is a very rich, complex and barely explored topic that needs to be explored further and I intend to make other contributions on this blog. Not surprisingly, what should have been a short interview for publication in a newspaper became a lengthy conversation – some fourteen pages of copy in all – that could not be edited down easily. Jacqueline and I have decided to share the interview with you, in two parts – both of them still long for a blog, but we hope that you will find it a rewarding read, which will inspire you to ask further questions and perhaps even to delve into your own family history. Enjoy!
VP: Jacqueline, some time ago we had a conversation about the untold stories in art in Jamaica, particularly with regards to women’s contributions, and your family’s quilt-making history came up. Please tell me about this family tradition and how you became involved?
JB: When I was growing up in Jamaica, I would be sent to the country for the summer holidays. In the country were my great grandparents and my grandmother, as well as numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. I could sleep at one of two houses: I could stay with my great grandparents in Nonsuch or with my grandmother a mile and a half away in Cambridge. This is in the parish of Portland.
In Nonsuch my great grandmother would be sewing together these pieces of cloth to make patchworks, but at the time I did not know it as art. My great grandmother, whose name was Celeste, would just be sewing together these things and using them on beds in her house. I have been conducting oral history interviews with my family members and what I have found out in doing these interviews is that sewing was integral to the women in our family — my grandmother, my great grandmother and such. My grandmother’s sister, Aunt Theresa, tells me that sewing was one skill that was passed down from one generation to another in my family, and even my Uncle Moses tells me that my great grandmother would have him — a boy child — making patchworks and beautiful multi-coloured mats made from small bits of fabric drawn through crocus bag/burlap sack. So I think that patchwork making and mat-making was something that was passed down for generations in my family. Now I have patchworks that my great grandmother made, patchworks from my grandmother, and there are several that I have made in response to these quilts. Altogether there are now 35 quilts from my family, and I feel just so happy to have them.
I can locate the exact moment that I became interested in this family tradition. It was during my junior year in college when I went abroad to live in Paris. In France I started reading the works of, among others, the writer Alice Walker who wrote an essay called “In Search Of Our Mother’s Garden.” In that essay Walker venerated the African American quilts that her mother and other women around her was making in Georgia. She wrote of these quilts as being a vernacular art form that partly answered the question of just what was the art that oppressed African American women had made? For Walker, and eventually for myself too, these quilts were a large part of the answer to that question. Indeed as I read Walker’s essay I was transported back to Nonsuch, to these things that my great grandmother had made. And that was when my interest in the patchworks that my great grandmother had made became very important for me.
In time as I went to graduate school to become an artist I would harken back to these quilts of my great grandmother’s and I would make quilts in conversation with my great grandmother’s patchworks. As I started showcasing these quilts in exhibitions in several countries this provoked questions about my great grandmother that I did not then have answers to. I turned to my grandmother Emma to answer these questions, and eventually she got interested in making patchworks too, as she had grown up with her mother making these things and her mother had shown her how to make these patchworks and that is how I come to have in my possession a collection of patchworks from my great-grandmother and my grandmother.
VP: What kind of quilts did your great grandmother produce – quilts are usually categorized as abstract/graphic versus story quilts, or how else would you describe them? Did she tell you why and how she produced them? Did she, or other family members, also produce work in other media, such as crochet, embroidery or basketry?
JB: One of the things that I learnt very early on in showcasing the work of my grandmother and great grandmother in the United States is that technically speaking the tradition that we have in Jamaica is patch-working which is distinct from the quilting tradition in the United States, the difference being the sewing together of two or more layers of fabric to make a thicker padded material. Technically then, what Celeste and Emma made were quilt tops. Several of my grandmother’s and great grandmother’s patchworks have subsequently become quilts through my intervention in so far as I had batting and backing put on these works to stabilize them, but they did not start out their lives as “quilts”. Now as I am writing this I am realizing that what has happened is that I have married the African American and African Caribbean experiences together to create something truly African diasporic in the work of my two grandmothers.
Celeste and Emma produced patchworks that can best be characterized as abstract. At first I thought there were no stories attached to these quilts. In fact, once, I asked my grandmother how she made her quilts and to my surprise I found out that the decision that she was making in her patchworks were no different from what I was making as an artist. Meaning, she said to me that the most important decision she had to make was deciding which piece of cloth to start the patchwork with. Once she found the piece to start it with, then she could begin adding other pieces of cloth. So my grandmother was reacting to different pieces of cloth in an abstract/graphic manner. What my Aunt Venice told me is that my grandmother, unlike myself, would cut and layout her entire patchwork before she started sewing. I cut and tear and sew as I go along.
I am not sure why my great grandmother made her patchworks, but I want to believe that she made them for a couple of reasons. To begin with, it seems to have been a family tradition to sew and to make patchworks and they were actually used on beds. What my mother and my Aunt Milva tells me as well is that Celeste used these quilts to make sense of her family. You see, while Celeste was very dark skinned she ended up marrying my great grandfather who could perhaps pass for white and she ended up having and subsequently raising several generation of “patchwork pickanninies” as my aunt and my mother tells me she called all the children around her. Finally I came to understand how that saying came about in my family, for it is something my grandmother, who had several children with different men, including a Chinese man, would oftentimes call her own children.
My mother also tells me that for Celeste different children and their various broods would be assigned various colours in her quilt-making schemata which is all quite interesting to me, one set of children being red, one being yellow etc. What I think is lost to us is the stories that my great grandmother was telling in her funky multi-coloured quilts about her family, because no one knows who was assigned which colour. I also mourn the fact that when my great grandmother died my cousin Mary told me that she was wrapped in two of her biggest and best quilts and taken to the morgue in Port Antonio Bay and no doubt those quilts were simply discarded. This is why I so appreciate your interest in this subject and you doing this interview Veerle because we might all be discarding and getting rid of quite valuable things.
But outside of their utilitarian value and in looking at my great grandmother’s work with the eyes of a trained visual artist I can see quite clearly that for her these patchworks was a creative outlet as well. Indeed, this was a woman, my great grandmother, who would make what I now know are paper collages in her house, though it was not called that then. So I think my great grandmother and grandmother, judging by the works that they produced, were really artists. You know, while I was born and raised in Kingston, in a working class situation, my roots are deeply rural. What I have come to appreciate about my family, especially my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother is the deep respect that they had for creativity and how they tried to foster that in the children around them. My grandmother, for example, encouraged my love of drawing by telling me and showing me how she herself used to and indeed could draw quite well.
Other members of my family did produce textile and other fibre works. Once, while walking with my grandmother in Nonsuch, she showed me some long grass and told me that they were good to make baskets and that at one time she could make baskets from grass. My mother was an exceptional — and I do mean exceptional — crochet maker who was taught her skills right there in the little school in Nonsuch and at a community centre that they used to have in the district. My mother’s crocheting skills were so good that people paid her to make crochet for them, and I grew up with all kinds of doilies that my mother made in our home. I loved to watch my mother make these doilies and I started crocheting at a very young age but am only now returning to it. Interestingly enough I did not grow up with too many people doing embroidery and applique when it seems that this would be an art form that the women around me would practice. I did a little embroidery in high school and loved it and would continue to do it over the years. A cousin of mine, Mary, who lives in Nonsuch has started making mats again, and she reports that my great grandmother had taught her how to do it, and she is teaching it to her grandchildren and my hope is that this family tradition will continue.
VP: African-American quilt-making is well-recognized, as a vernacular and modern art form. Some years ago, I saw the Quilts of the Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Whitney Museum, which was breathtakingly beautiful, and there are several contemporary African-American artists who use quilt-making as their main medium, such as Faith Ringgold who came from line of female quilt makers and made it her main medium as a contemporary artist. Are the quilts that your great grandmother left behind part of part of a family or community tradition or did she produce them in isolation? How do her quilts compare to the African-American quilts, for instance those of Gee’s Bend? Do you think there is a broader quilt-making tradition in Jamaica, which warrants further research and recognition?
JB: I do believe this to definitely be part of my family’s tradition and anecdotal evidence suggests that it might be part of a larger community tradition. A cousin of mine, Ledley, when I took some of the quilts back to the island to hang during my grandmother’s funeral recently, told me that he remembers other women in the district of Nonsuch making these patchworks when he was a child, but I don’t know of anyone, outside of my family members, making these in the district right now.
In the same way that reading Alice Walker’s essay was a watershed for me, so were the quilts of Gee’s Bend. I remember first seeing the quilts being profiled on a news program here in the United States and it made me sit up in my chair and take notice. For what I was realizing was that these Gee’s Bend quilts reminded me enormously of the abstract colourful quilts that my great grandmother had made in Jamaica. What fascinates me even more is that Gee’s Bend — like Nonsuch — is a deeply rural place and that it is inhabited largely by African diasporic peoples who were relatively self-contained. Yes, it is true that necessity and lack of resources played into people having to find a way of reusing limited resources, but I happen to think that there is something deeper going on here, something that has to do with textiles and the striated use of colour, but it would perhaps take someone with a specialized understanding to make these connections. When I read “Flash of the Spirit” by Robert Farris Thompson, I saw the same use of textiles and colours and patchwork making in that book as well so I want to think that there is a broadly African/ African diasporic aesthetic at work in these quilts. I do believe that maybe not quilting — but definitely patchwork making — warrants more research and yes, recognition, in Jamaica and Jamaican art history and visual culture because I am sure that if it is happening in my family it is happening in other families and in other places on the island as well.
VP: Quilt-making has significant metaphoric potential. Making them involves selecting and saving pieces of fabric that have had a previous life, designing and patterning, stitching, and stuffing – often months of slow and intricate work, almost a ritual. They conform to a particular aesthetic with a strong focus on pattern. Quilts are used for comfort, protection and decoration; they are often preserved across generations as family heirlooms, with repairs and additions made by subsequent generations. They are also usually made by women, in the domestic environment and for domestic use. Quilts tell many stories, implicitly and explicitly. You are best known as a poet. How do you view the poetic potential of the quilt and how could this be seen in your own literary work?
JB: In a sense all of what you have posed in your question rings true for me not only as an artist but also as a writer. When I think of what it takes to put together a book, it is very much like quilting and patchwork-making. For example, with a poem, I am always working and reworking whole stanzas of the work, in the same way that I am often trying various pieces of cloth, matching them up against a quilt-top to see if they would work, and, at times having to go back and take out a piece of cloth that throws the quilt colours and patterns off, in exactly the same way that I remove lines and whole stanzas from a poem. With writing there is definitely an element of sewing things together for me.
Particularly in my first collection of poems, Fauna, several people have made the observation that this book is an intergenerational work and that I am oftentimes in conversation with family members in that book and without question the quilts in the “Conversation Series” is an intergenerational conversation with my great grandmother and grandmother, particularly now that they have both passed on and I am the guardian (so to speak) of what they have left behind, materially, in these quilts.
Actually, your question is helping me to make connections to my writing life that I had not seen before. I have a new book called the Gymnast and Other Positions in which I was stunned, in going over the galleys, how many family stories I was patch-working and sewing together and telling in that book so I guess there is more cross-fertilization between my writing and my artistic life than I had realized before, though for many years I fought very hard to keep both areas of my life very separate. I wanted to be accepted or perhaps earn my stripes quite separately as a writer and a visual artist and so I kept the writing and the visual art apart. In fact for many years I ran away from anything that could “cloud” both endeavours and so, for example, it is only recently that I have been able to employ text in my visual art works.
JACQUELINE BISHOP is an award-winning writer and visual artist born in Jamaica, who now lives and works in New York City. She has twice been awarded Fulbright Fellowships, including a year-long grant to Morocco. Her work exhibits widely in North America, Europe and North Africa. She teaches in Liberal Studies at New York University; and is the author of The Gymnast & Other Positions, which won the 2015 Bocas Award, nonfiction, among other books. She writes a monthly column on visual arts for the Huffington Post. Visit her website at http://www.jacquelineabishop.com
All photographs in this post are courtesy and copyright of Jacqueline Bishop, all rights reserved; the copyright for the text is shared between Jacqueline Bishop and Veerle Poupeye.