Diedrick Brackens binds together past and present within the weave of colorfully dyed and intricately crafted tapestries. Organized by the New Museum, “Diedrick Brackens: darling divined,” currently on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, showcases nine large-scale textiles that hang against the walls and in the middle of the room.
In an otherwise isolating moment, Brackens’ textile art demands an intimacy of its viewers. In the silence of the gallery, it’s as if you can hear the sound of fabric weaving together, fingers and machinery gliding across the material as though they are one in the pursuit of beauty, each stitch making striking imagery out of thread and color. Using cotton, a historically charged material, one infused with water from the rivers of the American South, the Texas-born Brackens mythologizes animals and people in scenes of harmonic convergence.
The textiles in “darling divined” are inspired by a poem by Essex Hemphill called “The Father, the Son, the Unholy Ghosts.” Hemphill’s 1996 poem is an expression of self-fashioning one’s identity out of fraught circumstances, a much-observed theme in a lineage of Black American artmaking. Hemphill writes, “I stand waist deep / in the decadence of forgetting.”
Brackens’ tapestry “bitter attendance, drown jubilee” (2018) features two silhouettes standing waist deep in a river, fishing for colossal catfish with their bare hands. The artist poses these male figures hunting for food, socially connected to the bottom feeding fish through their consumption of them.
Yet in contrast to the lowly catfish, Brackens’ figures are framed above the waist by a bright yellow background harnessing a magical energy that recontextualizes these men as mythical creatures. Plucking them out of a river charged with division, Brackens turns history on its head by weaving a peaceful scene that even begets the sound of a playful splash. Humans are a piece of nature here, not in violation of it.
Brackens’ water imagery does not get lost in Hemphill’s “decadence of forgetting.” Rather, the artist alchemizes the historical notions of his subjects with great care, marking their lineage to the folklore of Southern river cultures. Recalling the river water’s function in the fabric dyeing process, there’s a sense that the catfish scales are very much alive — particles that once grazed the water now in the color before us.
Relating more deeply to Hemphill’s poem, with “the cup is a cloud” (2018) Brackens imagines two black figures as a bridge between the earthly and the ethereal. The humans share a pictorial plane with the stars, holding celestial orbs to the faces of goats in a field. These figures exist simultaneously as god and human, forging pathways for the otherworldly and the pastoral to meet.
But where do these pathways lead?
Hemphill’s poem reminds us of the unknowability of such a forging: “I leap / unprepared to be brave.” Yet artists such as Brackens are currently upending a historical desire to destroy our complicated pasts. Brackens urges us to look directly in the face of all the structures we have made either collectively or by force, and patch them into something new.
“I cling to cotton because it’s ubiquitous and then because it is tied up in the history of this country, Texas, and my family,” Brackens 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.”
Brackens heals the past by literally stitching and patching it back together. There is something divine about the human animal’s ability to relay messages from the cosmos to the earth and back. We gather our materials, and, through both practical and mysterious processes, we join them together into something new. We self-fashion not by forgetting our past, but by utilizing all of its pain and all of its magic in order to propel us into new imaginaries.
Brackens briefly positions himself in his woven artwork as a divine figure, the weaver of a universe that can join the viewer to the spiritual through the fabric’s formal materiality.
“Diedrick Brackens: darling divined” is on view through May 16, 2021, at the Blanton Museum of Art. The museum will host an online talk with Brackens in conversation with Blanton curator Veronica Roberts at 5 p.m. Nov. 17.