The Mat-Making Tradition of Sane Mae Dunkley

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Sane Mae Dunkley – Tapestry “Joseph Coat of Many Colours” (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

Sane Mae “Mama Lane” Dunkley, who passed away unexpectedly just before the end of 2017, was a significant culture bearer from Jamaica. Of rural origins from St Elizabeth but based in Jones Town, Kingston for most of her adult life, she was part of an extended family in which popular textile and fibre traditions had been kept alive across generations. She made mats and tapestries from colourful strips of fabric, recovered from old clothes and other textile items, and turned these humble materials into new, utilitarian objects that added comfort and visual splendour to the humble domestic environments for which they were created.

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Sane Mae Dunkley – photo: Jacqueline Bishop

The use of recycled fabric strips also appears in other cultural forms in Jamaica, which points to deeper origins and meanings. One such form is the Jonkonnu masquerade in Jamaica, which has equivalents throughout the Caribbean and is mainly derived from West African masquerade traditions (and which is also disappearing). One major character in the Jonkonnu bands is Pitchy-Patchy, who wears a costume made from fabric strips, produced in a way that is technically and aesthetically similar to the fabric strip mats, and the fabric strips of this colourful costume bounce and swirl, amplifying the movements of the masquerader as he dances down the streets. Such costumes have several equivalents in West Africa and there is evidence, for instance in Isaac Mendes Belisario’s Emancipation-era lithographs of Jonkonnu bands and characters, that Pitchy-Patchy has its origin in costumes made from plant materials that were replaced by fabric, some have suggested, as the tradition became more urbanized.

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Jonkonnu Dancers, Jamaica, 1975 – Pitchy Patchy is to the right Photo by WikiPedant at Wikimedia Commons [Attribution or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Jonkonnu, which was historically held during the Christmas season, when the enslaved received some time off, involved the satirical appropriation of various aspects of colonial culture and was thus also a way to speak back to power, symbolically, which reveals that there is a subversive quality to the culture of recyclage. There is also evidence, for instance in the accounts of the 18th century planter-historian Edward Long, of the use of red fabric strips that were hung at the entrance of slave dwellings as part of what he labelled as Obeah, or spiritual practices concerned with providing protection, and the colour red is in fact a dominant colour in traditional mats and the Pitchy-Patchy costumes alike.

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Sane Mae Dunkley – Mat (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

The mats that Sane Mae Dunkley created represent a once-prevalent form that is now disappearing, as it is being replaced by cheap imported, mass produced domestic goods, but it is an important cultural tradition that has to be recognized as such. The mat-making tradition may in itself have been primarily utilitarian and decorative, with possible submerged meanings, but Sane Mae herself saw them as something more, at least at the aesthetic level. She indicated that she could not bear the idea that people would be walking all over these beautiful mats, which was one of her reasons for moving towards the production of more ambitious wall tapestries and other, wearable items. Her desire to “do more” with this traditional prototype also reflects the reinventions and reimaginations that constantly take place in the popular culture of the Caribbean, in which there is always ample room for personal creativity. Her trajectory suggests that, once there is room for creativity and innovation, there will be a productive artistic future for what would otherwise have been a doomed tradition.

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Sane Mae Dunkley – Mat (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

Interview with Jacqueline Bishop – Part 2

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Untitled Quilt Series

 

Here is part 2 of my extended interview with poet and artist Jacqueline Bishop (you can read part 1 here):

VP: Your involvement in quilt making has broader implications for your work and some have used the term “patchwork aesthetic” to describe it. Could you explain this with some examples? And please tell us about your Conversations and Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica series.

JB: I think that at its best critics can help us as artists (writers and visual artists)  to understand what our preoccupations are. In a sense no one will ever know my work as intimately as I do, because I after all make these works. But someone outside of myself might be able to see and point out something that I did not see. And so it was with Cheryl Sterling’s article on my work “Jacqueline Bishop Jamaica Views, Frames, Vistas and Images” (Wasafiri Issue no 81, Spring 2015). In her article Sterling talked about the “…remnant, piecework, multiple frames, texts and images” in my work and suddenly I started to see the patchwork aesthetic in my photographs and paintings.

In four untitled quilts that I made recently, one for my great grandmother, one for my grandmother, one for my mother, and one for myself, you can see not only the familial dialogue at work in these quilts but the patchwork and piecing aesthetic that I am pulling directly from my great grandmother and my grandmother. This work arises from another body of work, “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica,” in which I focused on the landscape of my troubled but beloved homeland of Jamaica. The untitled quilts are paying homage to the women in my life who gave me the skills and the sensibility that I now have as both a writer and a visual artist.

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Untitled Quilt Series

The colours used in the untitled quilts are deliberate. I started the group out with the small dark woman, my great grandmother, described by many as fiery, and who was not a woman to be joked with at all. She was fierce and fiercely protective and loving of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all of whom she considered her blessings in life. The overwhelming red colour used in the quilt is a reference to her fiery disposition. But because of how she physically looked and because we are from Portland and not far from Moore Town there were always whispers that my great grandmother and her people were Maroons, and that too plays into the colour used in her quilt. If you look closely you will see that the centre of all the untitled quilts have a central image that I collage in Photoshop and had printed onto fabric and used in the quilts. In the image of my great-grandmother, she has a map of the Caribbean collaged with her face to indicate the central position of power of women in Caribbean societies.Read More »

Untold Stories – Interview with Jacqueline Bishop – Part 1

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Patchwork by Celeste Walker, great grandmother of Jacqueline Bishop

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.

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Quilt by Jacqueline Bishop

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