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Three older black female dolls each wearing an assortment of accessories.

Cinnamon Willis’ Melandolly dolls. Photo courtesy of the artist

  • Reflections on Reclaiming Space and Voice: The 2020 African American Craft Summit

    In June 2020, when we started our internships at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage we knew we would be organizing an African American Craft Summit. However, we did not know exactly what the structure would be, who would participate, or what they would discuss in these conversations. After months of planning, our visions became clearer. The African American Craft Summit is the first step of the African American Craft Initiative, which was born out the current pandemic and aims to address the needs of the under-represented African American craft community.

    In the first week of October, we had the opportunity to see our work unfold during the Center’s 2020 African American Craft Summit. After assessing the interests of invited participants, we structured the conversations to focus on the past, present, and future states of African American craft. Our team split participants into five focus groups, and each group’s conversation developed according to participants’ varying interests and focuses. Below, we have highlighted some contributions that were central to the summit meetings.

    A seated man weaves a sweetgrass basket in his lap.
    Antwon Ford making a sweetgrass basket
    Photo courtesy of the artist
    A frontal view of a finished sweetgrass basket-inspired sculpture outside.
    A finished sweetgrass basket-inspired sculpture by Antwon Ford
    Photo courtesy of the artist

    Multiple Aspects and Identities of African American Craft

    What is craft? Who defines craft? And what makes craft African American specifically?

    Tamra Thomas-Gentry, a Chicago-based metalsmith, reflected that while she is uncovering her own craft identity, her work sometimes feels disparate from her African American heritage. Namita Gupta Wiggers, a prominent scholar of critical craft studies, recognized that this challenge emerges because of how craft has been historically defined: “It’s very Anglo-centric. It goes back to the Arts and Crafts Movement, it goes back to England, it goes back to these five media [wood, textiles, ceramics, metal, and leather] that are taught in academia that are considered the ‘craft media.’”

    This narrow perception of craft often excludes African American makers because their work ventures beyond how craft is typically defined and does not “fit” the traditional expectations of how African American craft “should” appear.

    Chicago-based jeweler and scholar LaMar Gayles noted the pluralism of African American lived experiences, an essential point to consider in examining the racial dynamics of the white-dominant craft canon. Blackness can be expressed in a multitude of ways but is frequently constrained by the expectations of others. Similarly, there is not one set of characteristics that defines someone or their craft as African American.

    Ericka Boone, a Washington, D.C.-based jewelry maker, described, “Before you can educate people on who you are as ‘an African American’ crafter and what African American craft means to you as an individual, you must recognize yourself as a maker by owning your talents and gifts. There is a bit of imposter syndrome within that, but you must own it.”

    This ownership of craft centers around sharing a variety of experiences and perspectives: each story is worthy of being told and heard. Whether or not the maker directly expresses their African heritage, their craft is still valid.

    A black female doll dressed in a white dress adorned with a fluffy white scarf.
    Cinnamon Willis’ Melandolly dolls
    Photo courtesy of the artist
    A black female doll wearing a dress and ascot sits down with her arms crossed in her lap.
    Cinnamon Willis’ Melandolly dolls
    Photo courtesy of the artist

    Building Webs of Community Support

    Historically, the lack of institutional support from museums, craft shows, and exhibitions has hindered African American makers, but they have found alternate means to exhibit their work and connect with others. Deborah Grayson, a Maryland-based interdisciplinary visual artist, notes that it can be a challenging process.

    “Rather than try to adapt to the systems that don’t work for us, we can create networks and new ways to exhibit our work,” she urged. “Reach out to people who can connect with what you do. You don’t always have to go some of those sanctioned routes to share.”

    In framing her own experience as a piece of advice for others, Grayson shared how difficult the craft economy is but that it is possible to profit and succeed with the right resources and support.

    Finding a sense of community within their summit meetings, participants generally agreed that instead of altering or assimilating into these white-dominant spaces, they need to create their own inclusive, welcoming environments.

    “A lot of really beautiful, amazing artistry and craftsmanship is coming from spaces that are not institutional,” shared Risha Rox, an interdisciplinary artist in Los Angeles. With artistry and craftsmanship occurring outside of institutions, makers are creating their own spaces to showcase work and support one another.

    A frontal view of a finished sweetgrass basket-inspired sculpture outside.
    Risha Rox working on a recent piece, “The Oozing Collage”
    Photo courtesy of the artist

    Maker-scholars Michael Twitty and Emily Carris Duncan are using their voices and resources to form artist residency programs for BIPOC makers. These safe spaces allow for makers to explore their vulnerability and uplift those facing similar challenges.

    “To see a black artisan working in [institutions], that is a signal, or a sentinel, that says to people, ‘I can be okay here,’” said Michelle Lanier, a folklorist based in North Carolina. “If you see a weaver or a woodworker or a glass maker working in a space that has been intimidating, I often have seen Black people breathe a sigh of relief to say, ‘Okay, if they can make art here, then I can be here.’”

    Seeing one Black maker represented in an institution makes others feel more encouraged and welcomed. But until this cycle is widely practiced in museums, support for makers needs to be more accessible in other non-institutional settings.

    Museum Relations and Institutional Recognition

    After the renewed fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, many museums and institutions across the United States emphasized the importance and urgency of taking steps toward “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

    “Those are such, I think, reductionist catchphrases and buzzwords,” replied Lisa Woolfork, professor and host of the Stitch Please podcast. “And for me, they don’t mean anything unless they start with identifying white supremacy as the thing that needs to be addressed and dismantled.”

    When museums and other institutions are rooted in white supremacist values, it is difficult to make space for Black artists and makers to feel heard and supported in these spaces, no matter how much the museums attempt to “diversify.”

    Participants held varied opinions on the role of museums and institutional support for African American craft. Washington, D.C.-based textile artist Ronke Luke noted that “if your work gets in a museum, it is an invaluable endorsement you can never pay for.” While some agreed, others were disinterested in that formal recognition. This discomfort with institutions is a critical perspective to consider and is often not heard because it removes the emphasis placed on museum recognition and representation.

    Museum institutions often pick from the same selective group of renowned African American artists, but the pool from which they choose—and the criteria by which the artists are chosen—needs to be broader.

    A sepia toned photograph of a room covered in vines filled with an assortment of craft products.
    Baskets, hanging textiles, and miscellaneous items at the Seventh Annual Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the National Arts Club, December 1913.
    Photo courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
    A sepia toned photograph of a room covered in vines filled with an assortment of craft products.
    Finnish Arts and Crafts Exhibition hosted by the National Collection of Fine Arts, June 1952.
    Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
    Aerial view of a large showroom with columns and booths filled with crafts and people mingling about.
    2010 Smithsonian Craft Show, hosted annually by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee
    Photo by Kathleen Varnell, Smithsonian Magazine

    Jordan Carey, textile artist and founder of Loquat Shop in Portland, Maine, critiques the role of the Smithsonian in its past inclusion of African American art and craft: “I would love to see more opportunities from the Smithsonian . . . I am constantly struggling and arguing with fine arts institutions to prove to them that Black [art and craft] is the birth of all kinds of art and needs to be allowed to re-institutionalize.”

    Museums, especially those that uphold missions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, need to include varying forms of art and craft in order to truly live up to their supposed value of representing a diverse group of makers. The AACI team is not above the institutional critiques—we need to actively work to use this feedback to change how CFCH, and the Smithsonian Institution as a whole, give visibility and support to makers of color through research, programming, and events.

    Connecting and Reaffirming a Supportive Craft Community

    Born out of the 2020 dual pandemic, the summit allowed space for makers to highlight both new and recurring challenges that need to be addressed through the African American Craft Initiative. In sharing similar experiences and thoughts around the lack of institutional recognition, the importance of community support, and the breadth of African American identities and experiences, participants connected strongly with one another. Hair sculptor and textile artist Joanne Petit-Frère reflected on this camaraderie in saying, “The more [stories] we can tap into, tune in to, the more we can transcend the pain we experience, and then step into the joy we also know.”

    With a focus on community and collaboration, we can all push through these hard times and use our voices to make something beautiful and empowering.

    Julia Hirsch is a curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Macalester College, where she studied anthropology, French, and African studies. She has been researching African American contemporary craft with a strength interest in diasporic experiences, role of identity and self-expression through craft.

    Mya Lewis is a curatorial intern at the Center and a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where she studied art history and anthropology. She has been researching African American crafts to provide a platform for minority and disadvantaged makers who are frequently excluded from the art historical narrative and art market communities.

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