Diedrick Brackens’ tapestries are loaded with symbolism harking back to the artist’s roots in the American South
The artist discusses his new show darling divined, currently on view at the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin.
- Jyni Ong
- 10 December 2020
Many notable artists arise from the babble of New York’s prestigious scene but there is one artist in particular who seemed to be on numerous lips last summer: Diedrick Brackens. Acclaimed by The New York Times, who described his work as “a search for the true meaning of home,” Diedrick is currently being celebrated by the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas up until 16 May 2021. Tapestries are his predominant, not to mention rather exquisite, medium of choice. It is no arbitrary decision, however, but a nod to his Black heritage and his roots in the South.
Diedrick’s tapestries use West African weaving, European tapestries and quilting from the American South to form the base, and are laden with commercial dyes as well as unconventional colourants including wine, tea and bleach. These individual elements combine in a narrative which explores the artist’s identity as a queer Black man within the context of where he grew up, the South. Today we hear from Diedrick, who tells us of his relationship to his mediums and what he is hoping to communicate with this latest exhibition.
“I learned to sew from my grandmother,” he says. “I was always cobbling together these little stitched creations and making clothes for toys.” However, he didn’t realise the importance of making until his freshman year of college. After “floating around” during the first year, taking the required courses, his professor remarked: “Oh, you gravitate to making these things with string and fabric. Are you a fiber major?” That summer, he signed up to a weaving class and upon walking into the room, Diedrick still remembers: “I immediately fell in love.”
Though he had no understanding of the great machines before him in that sunlit room, he was captivated. “The rigidity of the tool, the matrix embedded in it, the meditative qualities of it, the colour and the materiality,” he recalls. “Long before I understood what to make, I was just really in love with the process. Weaving is spellbinding – there’s something about seeing somebody weaving, weaving yourself – it just kind of takes you over.”
Once he’d grappled with the technical process, Diedrick began to pour himself into the work conceptually. There are two pronounced tapestries in particular that demonstrate the complexity of the narratives he weaves, subtly connecting to the materials used to create the work as well as revealing lesser-known aspects of Black history. In bitter attendance, drown jubilee, Diedrick weaves in an event that occurred in 1981, a few years before he was born.
“For me, the memory is the constant retelling of the actual tragedy,” he says. While three Black teenagers were held in police custody, they were drowned at a Juneteeth celebration on Lake Mexia. “The loss of Black life, on the anniversary of Black liberation, at the epicentre of its celebrations was gut-wrenching,” says Diedrick. “It was made all the more personal that it was in the place I was born, on land purchased by my once-enslaved ancestors. I created the weaving as a way to tell the story and reimagine its violent ending. To honour the lives lost, the boys are returned to the world transformed as catfish.”
In another work, Diedrick explores the idea of the Black cowboy. The horse as a symbol entered his work when he decided to enlarge his tapestries. “I didn’t really set out to make work about the Black Cowboy,” he says of break and tremble. He knew he wanted to explore rural life, a feeling of working on the land, something the artist and his family still have a deep connection to. “Black people have been dispossessed from farming, nature and land ownership and by extension the cowboy culture, even though we are arguably at the heart of the history.” In turn, break and tremble is at the core of these intersections, drawing inspiration from apocalyptic horsemen.
Diedrick’s work is richly tactile, a purposeful element that he hopes to evoke through this new show. After a year of isolation, tactility is enhanced even more in the exhibition, something the artist has carefully curated to resound within the space – “that you will feel the tactile nature of the work in a way that resonates with being close to another person,” as he puts it. Every detail of Diedrick’s tapestries is considered, including every singly drop of dye or pigment that goes into each final piece.
He dyes his own yarns, so he doesn’t have to rely on the commercially produced spectrums, and this allows him to weave in more fluid and dynamic ways. “I can coax subtle shifts and interactions that would not otherwise be possible,” he says, “and I love colour theory and spend a lot of time thinking about how they behave as they interlace in cloth.” When he uses materials other than grade textile dyes, like tea or wine, he uses them to impart symbolism to “the composite poetics I am trying to formulate”. He finally concludes, leaving a lingering stream of thought on the viewer: “The materials might call out to allusions to blood, the body, to the kitchen, water might conjure up a place, wine or a lover.”
Diedrick Brackens, the cup is a cloud, 2018. Cotton and acrylic yarn and mirrors, 74 x 78 in. Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe. Image courtesy the artist; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Seoul; and Jack Shainman, New York (Copyright © Diedrick Brackens)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.