WALTHAM — Marla McLeod is a seamstress of history. The clothing in her exhibition “We the People (Our Love Will See Us Through)” at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center has symbols and stories in every stitch.
“Garments are a representation of the self,” McLeod said in an interview in the gallery. “Looking at Black history, I wanted an image of the self, the Black body, that was of pride.”
She started with stereotypes. “Anonymous Woman” has a headscarf like the one Hattie McDaniel wore playing Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.” But the gown beneath flows like one you’d see on Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. Along its hem, McLeod sews the names and words of avatars of Black female agency in history and pop culture: Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Janelle Monáe, and more.
In “Baldwin,” made to honor writer and activist James Baldwin, a black hoodie reads like the garb of a high priest. His own words are stitched throughout the attire, harmonizing with African patterning in a visual incantation. The writer’s name runs down the back of a kingly robe in glittering sequins.
“I wanted to address his involvement in the LGBTQ world,” said the artist.
Not every work here is clothing. “American Dream: 229 Black Lives in 2018″ features 229 lengths of twine suspended from ornate shelves. The twine is 79 inches long; the average American’s lifespan in 2018 was about 79. Each strand represents a Black person killed by police that year. (McLeod said she got the statistic from the Washington Post in early January 2019.) McLeod tracked down the age of each victim and knotted black yarn up from the bottom, an inch for every year of life.
“This was very difficult to make,” she said. “I had to sit with each individual for the time it took to make each line.”
The story of “American Dream” is heartbreaking. Its form is chilling. The ghostly homespun columns topped by golden capitals convey the labor of enslaved and poor people holding up American wealth.
The exhibition’s title nods to the US Constitution and a 1964 Nina Simone love song. Pulling from statistics and texts, layering symbols and metaphors, McLeod elegantly weaves the personal, societal, and historical. Retrieving lost threads, she consecrates the dispossessed and honors the love and strength of Black Americans throughout history.
MARLA McLEOD | WE THE PEOPLE (OUR LOVE WILL SEE US THROUGH)
At Kniznick Gallery, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 515 South St., Waltham through Oct. 29. 781-736-8102, www.brandeis.edu/wsrc/arts/current.html
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.