Artist Ifé Franklin honors those who lived and died enslaved
The word “adire” rolls off the tongue of textile artist Ifé Franklin like the sound of lapping water. Inside her Roxbury home, where tapestries, collages, and cloth-covered gourds radiate a deep indigo blue, she invokes the word often, describing the dyeing process at the heart of her craft.
“There is nothing modern about adire,” says Franklin, 53, who teaches drawing and fiber arts at the Eliot School in Jamaica Plain. “There’s no quick way to make it. You’re using these big tubs and you just get down in there with the fabric. It gave me this sense of feeling rooted.”
In the West African Yoruba language, adire (ah-DEE-ray) means “tie and dye.” It refers to a traditional Nigerian textile whose resist-dye methods date back centuries: using wax, thread, seeds, stones, tying, or stitching methods to produce intricate white patterns against blue ground.
For decades, Franklin has applied those techniques to every imaginable surface, from book covers to dolls to reclaimed cabinet doors. But with her first solo exhibition, The Indigo Project, now on view at the Medicine Wheel’s Spoke Gallery in South Boston, Franklin has stretched the limits of her medium, transforming the gallery space into an indigo-drenched world.
At the heart of the show, on view through Nov. 22, is an 8-foot structure in wood and cloth that conjures up a haunting vision of home: a slave cabin in patchwork adire, wrapped plank by plank, inch by inch, by Franklin and a group of collaborators who spent months learning her techniques and creating many of the adire designs.
For Franklin, whose packed opening in September included live drumming and a procession of supporters carrying the cabin’s final indigo boards, it’s a project that has been years in the making.
“This project is really to honor my ancestors who lived and died in enslavement, producing the materials that I work with freely: indigo and cotton,” says Franklin, whose great-grandmother Willie Mae McCain was born on the threshold of emancipation. “They want us to understand their struggles, so that we can fully be who we are now.”
In inviting viewers to contemplate her cabin, Franklin says she also wants to invite a different kind of dialogue. Recalling the shooting of Trayvon Martin — whose face is enshrined in one of the cabin’s panels — Franklin says, “One of my hopes for this project is to say, OK, if we can’t have a verbal conversation, let’s have a visual conversation. Whatever you bring to race and class and culture and that whole connection, put it in the fabric.”
Franklin’s installation comes at a time of renewed interest in the vanishing structures of slave life and the stories of those who lived in them. In Medford, the mission of the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum has been reoriented to focus not just on the wealthy loyalists who made the mansion their home but on the enslaved Africans whose labor made that wealth possible. Meanwhile, last spring, one of the nation’s oldest slave cabins was dismantled and transported from South Carolina to the Smithsonian’s new African-American history museum, set to open on the National Mall in 2015. In Savannah, Ga., plans are underway for the first national conference of the Slave Dwelling Project, founded by an African-American preservationist who has slept in dozens of antebellum cabins.
“Part of what makes the slave cabin an important object is that, simply by living and loving and creating community, people defined themselves beyond slavery,” says curator Nancy Bercaw, who oversaw the Smithsonian’s acquisition. “The cabin holds those lives within it.”
With its tight, one-room footprint, Franklin’s cabin certainly echoes actual slave quarters. Yet it offers more than a painful reminder of history. It seeks to rescue that history — through tradition, conversation, and bolts upon bolts of cloth, whose rich patterns and large scale evoke a kind of spiritual bandaging.
“To me this project is about, how can we take all of that pain, all of that brutality, and make something beautiful out of it?,” says Franklin, who sees the project ultimately as an outdoor installation and teaching tool. “I want to give my ancestors a home that they never had. I want to do something to soothe their souls. And I want to do that in a shared community, because slavery was a shared community.”
Community has played a big role in Franklin’s vision, starting with the first prototype in 2009, when friends helped wrap her entire back porch in cloth. In one way or another, many hands have touched this project, which was designed and built on a zero budget. A contractor donated the cabin’s mahogany boards. As the show’s opening approached, friends showed up at Franklin’s door offering bubble wrap.
And at the core of the project was a group of volunteers who became Franklin’s creative collaborators, learning adire’s intricate techniques. They came to the project from all walks of life — white, black, Latino, Jewish, old, young, male, female, urban, suburban, gay, and straight.
As they immersed themselves in the art form, volunteers say, conversations that once seemed too charged began unfolding — about Boston busing, about New England slavery, about whether young kids should be taught about the brutal realities evoked in Franklin’s work or be shielded from them.
“I think Ifé had this vision to create this place of refuge where we could talk about things safely,” says Lizi Brown, 59, who teaches painting at Tufts. “The group became a really good vehicle to talk about our different experiences.”
Though she didn’t know it when the project began, Franklin says that safe space was something she needed as much as anyone else. Maybe even more.
“When this started I thought, this project is for people to grow and learn and understand — meaning them, not me,” Franklin says. “But this project is asking me to soften in ways I never thought I could, to learn how to let go. And on some level, I feel like a lot of the pain we carry around as African-Americans comes from this need to let go.
“I’m not saying we should not have our experience, that we shouldn’t have our anger,” she says. “I feel my ancestors in that way all the time: For all the times they could not speak, I want to speak for them. For all the times they couldn’t say no, I say no for them. But at some point, in order for us to be able to breathe, we are going to have to let go of a little bit of that pain, and make peace in our hearts somewhere.”
On Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. Spoke Gallery will host a conversation with Ifé Franklin and Jennifer Pustz, member of the board of the Royall House & Slave Quarters. Admission is free. 110 K St., 2d floor, South Boston, www.mwponline.org.