Samuel W. Black is the Curator of African American Collections at the Senator John Heinz History Center. He is the editor and curator of “Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era.” He is the recipient of the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History and the S.K. Stevens Award from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations. A Smithsonian Fellow, he serves as the vice president of the Association of African American Museums.
About Fiber Art Storyteller Tina Williams Brewer
The art of Tina Williams Brewer conjures up symbolism, folklore, history, and most of all, spiritualism. In each fiber art piece, Brewer tells a story and most often the story is about universal peace, humanity and the spirituality of Africa. Brewer takes special care and skillfully weaves layer upon layer of fabric, jewels, photographs, idols and other three dimensional objects into each art piece that for greater appreciation one has to lend close inspection. Brewer is a highly trained artist. A Columbus College of Art and Design graduate trained in ceramics and interior design, she transitioned long ago into quilts and fiber arts.
Much of her inspiration comes from within and is supported by superior study of African and African American history and spirituality. A quiet, introspective artist, Brewer’s pieces are not by accident, using traditional and non-traditional quilt patterns and techniques. She also offers new patterns and new meaning to the story quilt category. One could say that Brewer is beyond category, or at least the categories applied in western art. Story quilts are not new and are the most popular of contemporary quilt forms. But Brewer’s fiber art pieces stand out. Various layers of her pieces are examples of her artistic training and cultural understanding. Many of her stories touch more on the spiritual impact of historic events such as the slave trade, middle passage, music, family, and culture. When I view one of her pieces I am taken aback – similar to the way a great jazz tune moves beyond category and registers in your spiritual subconscious.
Early Quilting and Imagery
Once Brewer began quilting in the early 1980s her work reflected an approach to using fabrics that allowed for imagery. She wasn’t enthusiastic about using traditional quilt styles – such as Amish quilt blocks with log cabin, Roman or Grecian squares but rather guided by her intuitive skills to reflect the Black experience. To a certain degree, the traditional styles constrained her creativity. She wanted to do story quilts that told the African and African American experience. Without knowing it, she was venturing into the early development of the African Diaspora reflected in art, literature, music and history. An almost natural progression from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, the African Diaspora cultural movement is fusing the art and culture of Africa’s dispersed children in the west, Asia and on the continent.
In 1993 she began to attend African history courses at the Carnegie Library’s Homewood Branch. These community discussion groups opened a new world of greater sources and academic learning for Brewer as she was able to expand her knowledge of African and African American history, spirituality and culture. The Black History classes also offered Brewer a source to critique her own work. By the end of the 1990s Brewer understood the Black experience enough to expand her incorporation of these themes into her fiber art pieces. She also had her husband, John, an accomplished lay historian for content support.
African Symbolism Central to Structure
Among the African cultural groups Brewer introduces are the Akan and Dogon of West Africa and Kemetic culture of ancient Egyptian-Nile valley. The use of Akan culture can be found in Adinkra symbols dispersed in various fiber art pieces. The Dogon spirituality is represented in figure depiction that brings to mind the Nommo, a mythological ancestor. Cartouches, hieroglyphs and Egyptian cosmology represent Kemetic styles in her fiber arts.
These spiritual symbolisms and icons represent a respect for traditional African beliefs systems, but also provide a cultural platform for the story-telling in Brewer’s work. Material culture such as cowry shells, cartouches, and other idols of Africa are interwoven to help tell a story or a perspective, such as the four-limbed figure with outstretched legs and arms often representing African ancestors or the collective in the Diaspora.
Because Brewer does not rely on traditional quilting patterns, her style begs for greater examination. Her intuitive skill mimics traditional African art and architectural styles. This structure is fundamental to African cosmology. Symbolism such as circles and birds, and other inanimate and animate designs have cultural meaning. Technically fractal styles abound in the layout of the works. Repetition of symbols and patterns indicate a mathematical structure as well as a spiritual synthesis embracing a celestial world. Brewer utilizes balance and space and multiple symbols into one work of magnificent art.
Each stitch, each strip of fabric, each color, and each pattern symbolizes some aspect of the African Diaspora cultural ethos. In this essay, five fiber art pieces are recognized as points of departure for the artist’s collective work: The Harvest; See The Music; Oh To Gory; Yo Bloodline; and Crossing Over.
Points of Departure
One of her first pieces, The Harvest, tells the story of the middle passage. A common theme in these early pieces, it takes a horrific experience, slavery, and depicts the Africans will to overcome and celebrate life’s conquest over bondage. A vertical chain stretches through the center representing bondage and figures lying horizontally around the chain give the impression of the formation of live bodies on a slave ship, while harvest birds at the top ponder the harvest or new growth.
The chain does not continue through the piece, but appears broken with three-and-a-half links. The piece is about survival and African Americans’ eventual conquering of slavery, oppression, and racism. It represents the first of Brewer’s fiber art pieces that utilized research. A significant note is her use of the figures that here are called “ancestors” that show up in various other pieces sometimes in slightly different form. Quilts can be made of personal materials and Brewer made The Harvest for her daughter and included fabric from ties belonging to her father-in-law.
The Harvest was somewhat of a point of departure as Brewer began to slowly phase out traditional quilt patterns into a more fractal structure in future works. You can still see quilt blocks mounting the sides in the Jacob’s Ladder pattern.
In See the Music, Brewer gets more expressive with the story of enslavement. The quilt combines various aspects of the historic record, cultural symbolism, art and music to communicate the experiences of Africans in the Diaspora. Dance plays a major part as dance icons such as Alvin Ailey influenced this work. A line of masked dancers at the top of the quilt depict ritual, the basis of African spiritual ceremony. Just below, imposed over the slave ship diagram are African warriors dancing in defense of their humanity. The historic diagram of the slave ship ‘Brooks’ which was detailed by abolitionists in 1788, is often used to tell the story of how Africans were packed like cargo on a typical slave ship. The image was used then as propaganda that historian Marcus Rediker describes as coming “to epitomize the cruelties of the Atlantic slave trade.”1
In its lifetime the Brooks carried over 5,000 Africans across the Atlantic. Brewer utilizes the Brooks image nearly two hundred years later as a reminder of the inhumanity that Africans have overcome. Captured Africans with stock-styled manacles around their shoulders descend diagonally as they are watched closely by the hornbill. It is an ancient bird viewed as sacred in Africa and is said to forecast death, bad luck or natural salvation.
Below the hornbill is a two-headed snake that symbolizes the role of Africans on both ends of the slave trade. A slave trader is grasping the tongue of one snake head; the other snake tongue is wrapped around the legs of African figures like a manacle. A backdrop of multi-colored tie-dyed fabric lays a foundation from which, on the right side, five blocks of traditional quilt patterns descend. At the very bottom of the piece, four dance figures with wide brim hats, typical for the American South, portray movement. The same hat-like pattern is repeated in the traditional quilt pattern off to its right.
The entire piece portrays movement and humanity in the face of inhumanity. The piece is telling a profound story of the impact of the past on today’s generation. Interpreted by John Brewer, the artist’s husband, he asks “to see the music inherent in the African experience and to look beyond the pain and suffering of years past, as well as today.”2
By 1993 the African history classes at the Homewood Library aided Brewer’s historical knowledge. Oh to Gory was her next venture into the realm of the slave trade and impact on the African Diaspora. Goree Island is located off the west coast of Senegal and has one of the hundreds of European built slave-castle/trading forts built between the 17th and 19th centuries along the West African coast from Mauritania to Angola. Goree is infamous for its castle or “house of slaves” which served as a holding pen for European slave ships. A window that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean is known as the “door of no return.” Most photographs of the “door” show it shaped like the fiber art piece by Brewer. Starting at this juncture, Brewer has immediately drawn the viewer into the “door” and takes you into the enslaved subconscious. Peering at the piece you are looking out the “door” into the Atlantic or the inhumanity inflicted on Africa. Three stick figures extend with arms and legs outstretched as if falling into the abyss. Ascending from the bottom are obelisk-like structures with roots and cartouches that cross the left and center structures. Birds and fish symbolize strength and nurturing. The use of Kemetic symbolism is a direct reflection of the historical connections between the Nile Valley and West Africa. It is a symbolic note on the history of the height and depth of African civilization.
Oh to Gory has a double meaning. Using the spelling of the term for violent, gruesome, brutal, horrific acts, Brewer makes a statement about the slave trade. Fractal styling in an almost abstract pattern frames the piece.
Teaching Influences Work
For over a decade Brewer has taught the art of quilt making for various schools, community groups, and special programs. During the 1990s her teaching experiences led to the creation of Yo Bloodline. A multi-layered collage of African prints and tie-dyed fabric, Brewer makes a connection between the hip-hop culture of her students and the heritage of African Americans. Backward-hat-wearing youth, generation-x’ers and other figures raise their fists recalling Black Power salutes of the 1960s. A chain-like thread weaves its way through the center of the piece recalling the bondage of their ancestors. African symbolism appears in the form of the ritualistic black and white tattooed figure in the lower right escorted by a lion, crocodile, and the female gender symbol. In many African societies the lion represents strength and leadership. The crocodile in Dogon society represents a guardian, usually adorning granary doors to protect the value of the harvest. The female gender symbol reminds the male-dominated hip-hop culture of the positive role of women in African heritage. Four birds, a familiar symbol in Brewer’s work, swarm upward around the spirit figure to symbolize the freedom and enlightenment that Black heritage represents.
Crossing Over represents a departure from the square or rectangle shape of Brewer’s previous fiber art pieces. A piece that speaks about transition – transition from life to death; from slavery to freedom; from ignorance to enlightenment – Brewer again courts the Black experience in her work. Crossing Over also is a change in color scheme. Muted colors and variations of white and pastel-colored fabrics respond to comments that her previous works were dark and mysterious.
The circle pattern in African culture signifies the continuation of the life cycle. The concentric circle is common and used in cultural symbolism and architectural styles. The Adinkrahene symbol of concentric circles represents greatness, charisma, and leadership. Brewer subtly uses this symbol, striking another meaning to the piece.
History and Culture Critical to the Future
Brewer has made a conscious choice to interpret the Black experience in her fiber art. She uses her art to teach about Black heritage and the power of humanity that it holds. She is concerned about whether young people are learning and even more importantly, appreciating the world of their ancestors. Brewer has commented, “I look and I see the past forgotten by our African American youth and I am compelled to piece visual symbols to bring forth those strong images to make a link to our history.”3
Superior study of the African past and appreciation of traditional spirituality has given Brewer a platform to connect Africa with its descendants. Popular story themes such as slavery and the middle passage serve as a backdrop to reconcile the African consciousness and provide an understanding of the African cosmology. Brewer’s work proves that there is not a disconnection between the Africans of the past and their descendants today. She finds history and culture relevant to address the impact of this history on Black society.
Tina Williams Brewer is a storyteller, guided by her ancestors, whose fiber art serves as her medium to open the world of Africa to our contemporary times.
Rediker, M., The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Publishing, 2007, page 309.
Brewer, J., “See the Music” poster print, 1990.
Thompson, E., 15th Southwest Black Art Exhibition. Dallas: Neiman-Marcus and the Board of Trustees of the Museum of African-American Life and Culture, 1993. Brewer was quoted in the exhibition catalog describing her work.
Benberry, C., Always There: The African American Presence in American Quilts. Louisville: The Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992.
Eglash, R., African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Kreamer, C. M., Roberts, M. N., Harney, E., Purpura, A., Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art. Washington: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 2007.
Mazloomi, C., Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African American Quilts. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1998.
Rediker, M., The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Publishing, 2007.
Wahlman, M., Southwell Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts. New York: Studio Books in Association with Museum of American Folk Art, 1993.
African Arts, vol. 40, no. 3, Autumn 2007. Los Angeles: The James S. Coleman African Studies Center, UCLA International Institute, University of California, Los Angeles.