The New Bend
Contemporary weaving artist Diedrick Brackens reinterprets a centuries-old quilting tradition
By Irene Vázquez
"survival is a shrine, not the small space near the limit of life," 2021, cotton and acrylic yarn by Diedrick Brackens. © Diedrick Brackens. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Thomas Barratt
Oh, I wanna come near and give ya
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips are unclean
—Leon Bridges, “River”
It’s a dusky Saturday afternoon in early March when I find myself at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district. I say “find myself” because I can’t remember where exactly I heard about The New Bend, an exhibition of twelve quilting and textile artists curated “in tender dialogue with, and in homage to” the quilters of Gee’s Bend. A group of Black women from southern Alabama whose quilting traditions date back to at least the nineteenth century, the artists of Gee’s Bend were vaulted into fame after being “discovered” by a white art collector in the early aughts. Some newsletter, some flyer, and a dream guided me here.
In the dream I saw a lone Black figure, standing at the banks of an unknown river, draped in an ancestor’s quilt whose patches were from a place that the person could no longer return to. Something within me recognized the mournfulness in their eyes.
I’ve been trying to make a new home where all parts of me are welcome in Hoboken, New Jersey, a few minutes’ walk from the Hudson River. Though my flight from Houston was a voluntary one, I still search the streets for signs of the South, of my home, of the parts of myself I feel I left behind. In every neon sign advertising overpriced hot chicken in the East Village, in every pair of cowboy boots shuffling onto the PATH train at 23rd.
Swiss contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth sits on a block chock-full of galleries in Chelsea. Though I visited the gallery once in pre-pandemic times, I still feel slightly off-kilter against its five stories of stark white walls. That’s why I’ve gotten in the habit of making deliberate eye contact with any people of color I see in spaces like these. I look for someone I hope understands how it feels to marvel at creations made by people with a history of being excluded from rooms like these. I end up asking the docent, also Black, if I can pull up a stool in front of fellow Texan Diedrick Brackens’s tapestry, called survival is a shrine, not the small space near the limit of life.
Once I sit down, I’m immediately struck by the size of Brackens’s tapestry. At roughly eight by eight feet tall, the piece dwarfs my 5'4 frame. But rather than feeling overwhelming, the size evokes majesty. A silhouetted figure crouches at the center as its arms extend outward, and they are framed by a black star, though a more muted black than that of the central figure.
The title in many ways reminds me of why I made my way to New York. Brackens is right: Survival is a shrine, something holy, something to pray toward, to point one’s life in the direction of.
Survival is something worth leaving everything you know behind for, worth sacrificing the soil on which you were sown. I’d set my sights on New York from a young age, in large part because I grew up on Broadway soundtracks with a healthy infusion of Glee, which told me that the city was the place to go if you were queer and had any sort of artistic inclination. When college applications rolled around, New York broadened into the Northeast, where I wound up at Yale, oft branded the “gay Ivy.” There, in my African American studies classes, I learned of the New York of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and June Jordan, the city where they struggled, loved, and lost and wrote of the world as they saw it and as they hoped it would one day be re-born. My heart tugged me toward the city, and I landed in Hoboken, just across the river, where I work at a publishing house and write poems about the Gulf South where I grew up.
I spent most of my life desperate to leave Texas. I never saw it as a site of possibility. I try to be compassionate with myself now, to be understanding of my desperation amidst what was otherwise a very comfortable, upper-class life in Houston, where I had markedly progressive teachers, a solid group of friends of color, and access to cultural workers from the traditions whence I came. In many ways, my pain was banal, just like any other pop-punk-fueled adolescence, desperate to break free of this block, this town, this angst.
Then I remember how carefully I’ve tucked away how impossible I was made to feel. Once I begin to unfold the quilt of myself, I see the patches that made me: One depicts sophomore year of high school when a group of white boys pretended to auction off one of my Black classmates. In another, I’m losing my junior year student council election to a xenophobic right-winger. Stitched alongside is the Black UCC church (an ostensibly progressive denomination) that was at once sanctuary but also told me that being queer was a sin. I patched these things into poems, stitched them into college essays, and told anyone who was willing to listen that I was ready to run.
Installation view, "The New Bend," Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street, 2022. February 3-April 2, 2022 © Hauser & Wirth. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Thomas Barratt
And yet psychologically, I haven’t left the South, and neither has Brackens, which is evident in his art (though the Mexia, Texas–born thirty-three-year-old artist now makes his physical home in Los Angeles). In an interview in Gulf Coast, a literary journal published out of the University of Houston, he says, “I think often about the unknowable terrors and violence endured, all back-dropped 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.”
Quiltmaking, the tradition in which Brackens’s tapestry sits, asks for every part of its maker, every piece of what you have—the remnants of a pair of jeans, the skirt of a dress (that itself once came from a sack of feed). It doesn’t question, so long as you have faith in your two good hands to transform it.
The star pattern at the center of survival is a shrine… is often known by the name it was standardized as, the Sawtooth Star, which is from an 1884 pattern in Farm & Fireside magazine. It has also been known as the North Star, emblematic of the celestial figure of freedom for Black folks fleeing enslavement in the South. Like me, Diedrick Brackens is a Black queer person from Texas. You can read the figure’s position inside the North Star two ways: being framed by history, an acknowledgement of the longstanding place of queer creators within this Black artistic tradition, as well as bursting out from within it, unable to be contained by the structures it imposes.
The docent (I’m too awkward to ask his name, given that we’ve already waded into conversation) asks me what drew me to Brackens’s piece, and I tell him that I’m here to write an article, I’m a journalist. But the truth is more complicated than that. I’m here to see if the art can make some sense of me, some sense of this vision I had. The existence of a quilt implies a recipient—someone to sleep beneath it, to make it into a pallet. What did this quilt, rendered by Black queer hands that knew of the impossibility I felt back in Texas, have to teach me?
I see this feeling of impossibility portrayed in Brackens’s work. Or rather, a presence that insists on being felt in spite of the way it’s been made to feel impossible. The opacity of the central figure shelters their most intimate parts away from the unkind gaze, one who would seek to cast the figure as a sinner, as a criminal. (I am intentional here in my choice of the pronoun they, in recognition of the unknowability of the figure’s gender, information that I as a viewer am not privy to.) From up close, you can see the figure’s soft and malleable texture, rendered in black acrylic yarn on top of a base layer of hand-dyed blue cotton. The heaviness of the acrylic’s texture lends heft to the silhouette.
Brackens is often placed in conversation with Kara Walker, whose life-size black cut-paper silhouettes often feel to me like the embodiment Zora Neale Hurston spoke of when she said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” that is to say historicized and stuck. The seemingly supple yet fundamentally opaque texture of Brackens’s yarn, on the other hand, feels like a deliberate rewriting of the background the figure is placed upon, a queering of the tradition, in a sense. The figures that Brackens depicts say first and foremost that there is no story of the South that can be told without queer Black people. Yet and still, the casual viewer in this New York gallery is not allowed to penetrate their interiority.
The figure squats in the center of the North Star, raised on the balls of their feet, almost like they’re giving birth. Though being rendered in the tapestry requires confinement, the stillness is an unstable stasis. Their arms extend past the borders of the quilt’s central square, at once shrinking into the square and breaking out of it. I am reminded that in the absence of community, which many queer Southerners find themselves without, coming into your identity can feel like giving birth to yourself. Sloughing off the afterbirth of tradition, of homophobia, and beginning a new life from the DNA of the old. It’s a lot like quilting in this way, too—the scraps of the old life giving rise to something new, something that can keep you warm.
When I see it up close, I’m struck in particular by how the panels cut through the figure’s arms and thighs where they are pieced together. There is a price, it seems to say, to being a part of this tradition as a queer Black person. Though you will emerge from it, there will be scars.
The docent and I keep talking about the rest of the exhibition: eleven other pieces that range from durags affixed to a wooden panel to figurative quilted textiles that look like they’re out of a Faith Ringgold painting. The careful eye for geometry the artists of Gee’s Bend are known for suffuses many of the pieces in the exhibition. In others, the tradition of bold and seemingly improvisational use of color comes through. We chat about our favorite pieces, things that surprised us. I didn’t know things like this could be art before this, he says. I get it. There’s something funny about quilting, something Black folks did for each other, the thing we did to keep warm, hanging in a gallery frequented by bougie people in the know.
You have to go three generations back on my mom’s side to get to the quilters. With my grandmother’s generation, we became writers thanks to the blessings of natural inclination and circumstance. I never knew my great-grandmother, though I am named for her. I grew up with her quilts in my house. They were tattered from good use by the time they got to me—I imagine them on the floor of her house in Nichburg, Alabama, when my mom would stay in the summers, or keeping the family warm in the rare winter that southern Alabama got snow. Hanging on the line, beaten with a broom to get the dust out. They’re tucked away nowadays, since my mom treats them as art—we get our blankets for snuggling at Ross. But I can still call them in my mind’s eye, their vibrant greens and reds. I liked their color-blocked tatters; they were soft.
When I was eighteen, my adopted godmother gave me a quilt, a combination baptism and high school graduation gift. I attended church throughout my adolescence, singing in the choirs and performing in the Christmas and Easter pageants every year. It was a conscious decision on my mother’s part to take me there, even if it wasn’t always as progressive as she might have liked otherwise. She knew she was raising a Black child of mixed heritage in a predominantly white neighborhood who was going to predominantly white schools, so she wanted me to start every week with my feet firmly planted amongst Black people, in a sense of community in Houston’s Third Ward.
I still think it’s funny that I chose to get baptized in a church that explicitly told me during my confirmation that being gay was a sin. I can’t really explain it. I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to see God, even if I knew that some of the people in that church couldn’t see me in my entirety. But perhaps even more than that, I wanted to leave home knowing I carried something within my soul of that place that always supported me in the ways it knew how, keeping close the memories of selling Girl Scout cookies in the church lobby, of playing Beneatha in the Black history month performance of A Raisin in the Sun. Rather than the traditional soft cotton squares I grew up with, the quilt my godmother gave me was a Frida Kahlo–inspired quilt, dotted with calaveras and unibrowed caricatures, somewhat coarse in its newness. There’s no batting in it yet, so it’s decorative more than anything else, but it followed me to the Northeast for college, to the land I ran to in order to find myself, and in finding myself, find others like me.
Though Brackens’s tapestry bears the patchwork tradition of the quilts I grew up with, there’s something deeply grounding about seeing the silhouetted figure emblazoned upon it—it tells me that we belong, if not to the South, then to one another. We make a home of each other where we are. My eyes linger over the tapestry’s bottom edge, where an array of tassels of blue and black yarn hems the bottom left and right panels. But the middle-bottom panel is left sans tassels. The longer I look, I realize that the figure is not evenly centered in the middle panel—they’re on the edge, almost as if they’re about to take a step down into the blue beneath, to free themselves from the structure of societal tradition, to swim into the deep in search of more fertile shores.
It’s easy to forget that Manhattan is an island. In fact the city often feels designed to make you forget the delicate balance it strikes with the water. After I leave the gallery, I remember I’m just a block away from the Hudson. As a child of the Gulf Coast, water always reminds me of home, both its pleasures and its seemingly vengeful vagaries. As I walk along the banks, I think about the life I’ve made for myself here, amongst Black queer people, always writing about home yet still not daring to return.
From this bend in the river, that figure I dreamed of, that body enshrined in the quilt from a place it left behind, finally begins to make sense. The quilt is as much me as the body it covers is. There are parts of me that are still in pieces, even as much as I’d like to pretend that I left that fractured self behind. Walking along the Hudson, I drape myself in the quilt of the wounds I’ve inherited, of the violences that climate change will go on to inflict. I shield myself from the cold, even when it reminds me of a warmth I cannot return to. And I sit at the new bend of the river, writing about the future that awaits.