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.
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.
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.
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.