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ART REVIEW

At SPOKE Gallery, L’Merchie Frazier’s quilts speak volumes

The artist’s ‘Barricades’ series poses questions about America’s history, social divisions, and racism.

L'Merchie Frazier, "BARRICADES: The Mathematics of Racism 2: Living in the Calculus." Quilt medium, nylon construction, woven caution tape.Courtesy of the artist

“The Scene/Seen,” L’Merchie Frazier’s quilt exhibition at SPOKE Gallery, is like a storyboard with each scene grounded in history. As in many a good story, the narrative spirals. Frazier, who is Director of Education and Interpretation for the Museum of African American History, Boston|Nantucket, portrays time as deep as it is long — full of reflections and rhymes, detours and returns.

This small show features works from Frazier’s “Barricades” series, addressing how sanctioned boundaries inevitably place people — often Black and brown people — on the outside. It’s easy to turn people on the other side of such barricades into targets, and Frazier explores that dynamic in two remarkable quilts from her “Target” series.

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Quilts are a brilliant medium with which to explore social divisions. They are intimate enough to wrap ourselves in, and they trace the story of America. Frazier is a master stitcher and storyteller. Her sheer nylon images shimmer like mirages, making history as viscerally potent as dreams. Or nightmares.

An emblematic scene lays her theme bare in two pieces titled “BARRICADES: The Mathematics of Racism: ‘Living in the Calculus.’” A young Black man’s face is bordered at top and bottom by yellow caution tape in English and Spanish. These quilts pose the question: Is this young man dangerous, or is he endangered?

In the dazzling “Target Series: MLK: WE JUST KEEP ON COMING,” a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. shines like a full moon over photographic images from Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when state troopers and local lawmen attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Frazier adds signage from other protests of the last century: “Black Lives Matter,” “Aqui Vote Here,” “Vote Yes on Women’s Suffrage,” and “I Am a Man,” carried during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis, where he was assassinated. At the bottom, a line of silhouetted marchers crosses the pattern of a bull’s-eye, or of a vortex pulsing through time.

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L'Merchie Frazier, "Target Series: MLK: WE JUST KEEP ON COMING, (2017)." Nylon construction, mixed media.Photograph by Ryan Mahoney for SPOKE

Other quilts visit a zoo in Memphis, where Ernest Withers photographed Jim Crow-era segregation; and, closer to home, a 1969 protest against the controversial Inner Belt highway project that never came to be. In the show’s powerful coda, “Target Series: Going Beyond the Self: Lale and the Children,” Frazier depicts Ethiopian humanitarian Lale Labuko, who provides shelter to children at risk from ritual killings based on tribal beliefs.

Barricades are physical and social manifestations of fear. Frazier’s quilts illuminate the fear, casting light toward the hope and humanity on the other side.

L’MERCHIE FRAZIER: THE SCENE/SEEN

At SPOKE Gallery, 840 Summer St., South Boston, through March 18. 617-315-7318, www.mwponline.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.