Textile work is a means of communication. Embroidery, weaving, sewing, quilting, and garment making are passages through which diasporic transmissions occur. As Lisa Gail Collins writes in Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt (2023), “the textile brings attention to human suffering, resilience, creativity, and grace.” Collins considers the production of these material objects, particularly quilts, a necessary work for Black women to process, and communally claim, our grief.
Handmade textiles, often pieced together from scraps from the world around us, offer a unique space to transform this racialized, gendered, and classed forced labor into an object that guides us to safety, keeps us warm, and memorializes our communities. For me, entering a gallery wrapped in quilts is an opportunity to connect with the materiality of the objects in hopes of crossing the threshold of the past and the present. If you really tune in, textiles hum their history, making the linkages between the maker and the object undeniable.
Adriene Cruz’s work within the Assembly exhibition during the Converge 45 biennial in Portland was no exception. Presented as a part of Social Forms: Art as Global Citizenship at the Pacific Northwest College of Art within a small rectangular gallery with a glass facade, there was a modest number of irregularly shaped, pigment dyed textile pieces installed intimately against the white walls. Bathed in the canned lights’ incandescent warmth, the large swaths of tangerine and cobalt fabric adorned with small mirrors and delicate beads glowed as if beneath the sun.
HELA. Honoring Henrietta Lacks (2023) immediately drew my attention before I even fully entered the gallery. One of the largest tapestries in the room, the piece straddles being didactic with each panel taking the shape of letters to spell out “HELA” and abstract in its architectural quality — at many vantage points the textile can read as a church or a sanctuary stretching up toward the sky. HeLa, as it is spelled in cellular biology, is the line of cells that was nonconsensually taken from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman receiving treatment for cervical cancer in 1951. Lacks died at thirty-one the same year this sample of her DNA was stolen from her. These cells have been continuously used to make breakthrough discoveries in vaccine and cancer research without significant reparations paid to Lacks’ family.
The shibori, spiral, and reserve dyeing techniques employed by Cruz create bursts of colors that mimic organic organisms and connective tissue. Dark beadwork wanders like veins throughout the piece, giving a pulse to the enshrinement. Small metal crosses, cowries, tassels enrich the already kaleidoscopic work and ground this piece in the Black ancestral tradition of laying offerings at one’s altar. Through this thoughtful ornamentation, the artist’s tribute to Henrietta Lacks becomes enlivened. Lacks and Cruz are in conversation and the textile is a transcript.
I backed away from this piece considering the power of naming the Black women who are too frequently used and then cast away, left to die in obscurity. The tapestry serves as a way to preserve our collective memory.
Be Positive. Remembering Valerie J. Maynard (2023) creates a throughline of remembrance and influence. The mixed media piece is an assemblage of individual panels strung together horizontally so that the vertical sections hang down like pennant flags. This tribute to the late and iconic Valerie J. Maynard, an instrumental figure in the Black Arts Movement, has a graphic element. Amongst bold black lines that segment and spiral throughout a deep green and aubergine ground, the words “BE POSITIVE, POSITIVE, POSITIVE” are scrawled on the textile like a mantra or a chant.
Instructive language shows up again with Yes (2023). Like an affirmation, the word “yes” bursts from the radial patterning of the textile. Cruz’s use of triangles and spiral-like forms, as well as strategic seam placement, gives the work a feeling of endless movement and calls to the spiral as a symbol of continuity and evolution in many African spiritual practices. I stood with this textile for a while, muttering “yes!” quietly to myself again and again after a day and life of hearing many “nos.”
Cruz’s presentation in Social Forms reads as an homage to Black women and our crafts. Although I would have loved to see more pieces by the artist, potentially in a larger gallery, her meditation on conjuring the spirit through textile modalities offered a concentrated glimpse into the artist’s capacity to create cosmologies where grief and celebration commingle. While the larger biennial sometimes struggled to connect the nearly twenty exhibitions across Portland under the theme of “art as global citizenship,” Cruz’s work felt laser sharp. Her mission was a clear and stunning respite.