Traditionally, the work of African American makers in the American craft community has been minimized, dismissed, or ignored by art historians, folklorists, and cultural heritage institutions. Over the past five years, however, African American makers, historians, and craft organizations are pushing for greater recognition and documentation of their work and impact on American craft. Launched a year after the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive, a project developed by Dr. Tiffany Momon in 2019, the Smithsonian’s African American Craft Initiative (AACI) aims to identify and support the educational, programmatic, and financial needs of the Black craft community.
Project founder and director Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye notes that while historians, art critics, and folklorists began to study African American crafts in the late twentieth century—notably in the 1960s and 1970s during the civil rights movement—their focus was largely confined to textile arts, basketry, blacksmithing, and other heritage arts, restricting access to opportunities for funding and exhibitions. Building on the legacy of the National African American Crafts Conference and Jubilee in Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1979, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage hosted the African American Craft Summit in October 2020 to discuss the past, present, and future of African American craft with makers from across the country and to include a variety of craft traditions outside of heritage arts.
Following the momentum of the summit, AACI organized a series of African American Craft Organization Think Tank meetings to facilitate conversations about the ways in which organizations can best support makers and their communities while also addressing the unique challenges they face. After consulting one on one with makers, the AACI team organized three small group sessions for thirty-five representatives between May 25 and 27, 2021, gathering craft and activist organizations, collectives, galleries, small businesses, cultural centers, and museums.
Through robust conversations, participants focused on involving younger generations in crafting, documenting elder makers and their impact on the American craft community, and using history to guide craft traditions, programming, and more. As a result of these discussions, participants were able to draw upon their organizations’ experiences to express the needs of the Black craft community and what must be done to better support makers and the vitality of African American craft.
Carrying the Torch: Teaching Younger Generations and Celebrating Elders
Many makers in the meetings practiced craft traditions passed down from older makers, especially family members. As such, a primary theme throughout the Think Tank meetings was how best to include younger generations in African American craft education and document the work of elder makers.
“My grandmother taught me how to sew and knit when I was a very young age,” noted Mary DeBoise-Morgan, founder of Black Girls Craft. “Why aren’t we teaching our children that?”
Participants also raised concerns about the continuity of craft traditions in the African American community, especially among young people, without educational and generational support.
Who will continue these craft traditions? What obstacles stand in their way? How can young and elder crafters be better supported in their art?
Among art historians and cultural heritage institutions, there can be a negative connotation surrounding folk art and crafting from outside communities. Corey Pemberton, director of Crafting the Future, shared that due to the lack of both craft education and craft resources in schools, fewer Black youth are looking to pursue craft-related careers.
Elder makers also identify this as a challenge. Think Tank participants Willis “Bing” Davis, director and founder of SHANGO: Center for the Study of African American Art and Culture; Marvin Sin, leader of the Art of Leather and leather artist; and Carolyn Mazloomi, founder and director of Women’s Quilter Network, are pivotal figures within the craft education community, paving the way for other crafters to succeed and prioritizing what the community needs the most. Collectively, they spoke on the challenges of bringing young people into the crafting community while also emphasizing the importance of youth in the process of passing the torch.
Indeed, youth are needed to take on these legacies of craft, learn their histories, and promote change using their skills. The best chance to foster the future of crafts, elder makers remarked, lies in creating opportunities by and for African American makers, including apprenticeships for young people.
Resources, Residencies, and Professional Development
Think Tank participants noticed that, within the Black crafting community, there is a serious lack of access to spaces, resources, and professional development opportunities to further one’s career. They believe these spaces would be most effective if associated with community hubs rather than academic settings to ensure all are heard and seen, no matter their educational background.
Mandisa Smith, director of AKOMA Detroit, remarked that opportunities for residencies, exhibitions, and education are all important, in addition to financial resources. Providing such access and resources would encourage young people to pursue African American craft and create safe spaces for them to discuss their own life experiences.
Keeping Craft within the Community
The Think Tank highlighted how Black-owned craft businesses tend to be overlooked within the Black community, often due to lack of knowledge, prohibitive costs, and inconvenience as opposed to online options . In fact, most makers’ profits come from white consumers. Yet many in the African American craft community view their products as an extension of themselves and their heritage, and they wish these objects could stay within their community. Furthermore, many desire the crafts they make to be passed down through generations, artifacts of the African American diaspora.
At the Waller Gallery in Baltimore, manager Sandra McMillan engages African American makers as both exhibitors and curators. It provides new perspectives on how they and their work fit into gallery and museum spaces.
“The Waller Gallery wishes to be the stepping-stone for artists of color to showcase their work in Baltimore,” she said. “We hope that this opportunity will educate the community about the value of art and also be a training tool for our artists.”
Noting the myriad ways African Americans have been disenfranchised throughout American history and their contribution to craft, participants spoke to the present-day issues their organizations face. Corey Pemberton calls for increased representation in museum and gallery leadership and exhibitions—especially as museums are pushed to increase DEAI initiatives.
Pemberton noted that he wants to see a shift towards exhibitions that include twelve percent African America artists. He hopes to see his work and those of other Black artists in a way that represents the United States. Pemberton aims to see a similar shift on an institutional level with more Black people in curatorial positions and other leadership roles in museums and gallery spaces.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many cultural heritage organizations, galleries, and museums have grappled with responding to racial diversity and representation amid a global pandemic. Many museums are also struggling with how to address white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and white-dominant historical narratives. The African American Craft Initiative aims to connect museums and galleries to Black makers and organizations whose craft can and must be better be supported by these institutions.
As AACI continues to lay the groundwork for broadening relationships and developing stronger networks within the African American craft community, the team will continue to gather and analyze the data and insights shared by makers and organizations during the Maker Summit and the Think Tank.
This month, AACI will coordinate and host the Craft Institution Consortium, inviting national craft organizations, universities, large funding institutions, galleries, and museums to discuss their roles in the American craft community and how they can create more equitable and inclusive policy as they relate to funding opportunities, public programming, collecting initiatives, exhibitions, and residencies.
Emma Cieslik is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Ball State University, where she studied public history, anthropology, and biology. She has been researching African American clothing traditions, specifically elements of personal adornment closely associated with religious identity and self-expression.
Kamryn Bess is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a sophomore English major at the University of the District of Columbia. She is planning on pursuing a career in museums, specifically, as an art museum curator.