barbara lewis

You WILL See Me: Amah Edoh and Barbara Lewis

The third installation of our Black History Month series can be best described by the term "mind trip." Amah Edoh's talk challenged our notions of essence, fixity and identity through her investigations of "African" wax print cloth. Instead of having exclusive origins in places like Ghana, Togo or Cameroon, many of the prints, patterns and actual production of the fabrics we see in African markets in Harlem have their origins in places like Holland. (Funny given that Harlem is a shortened version of the Dutch city Haarlem.) 

We also learned that many of the patterns we conceive of as originally "African" were inspired by Indonesian fabrics and patterns. For everyday folk in Lagos, Accra or Dakar, the origins and foreign productions of these cloths are given. For people of African descent in other parts of the diaspora, not so much. 

For Amah, the fact that we were ever allowed to imagine a fixed point of origin to something as complex and hybrid as cloth point to how we often yearn for fixity in our complex and hybrid identities as black people. Coming to terms with our complexity may require that we all spend more time as "lost in translation." For many of us, it was the first time we heard that many of the most popular African print cloths were designed by a still living 80 year old white Dutch guy! 

Following Amah, Barbara Lewis wove together stories and images of Black style from history and the present. She described Black style as that of jazz: full of surprise, syncopation and a bringing together. She spatialized comtemporary Black experience and hitstorical Black experiences through her treatment of "The Strip." During slavery, Black people found expression of their humanity on the outskirts, on the strips, of the panopticonic plantation. The strip shows up again in the making of African-American quilts, and she would like to see the strip continue to be explored in the making of Black style.

Barbara also touched on some of the controversies in contemporary Black style,particularly the styles of Black youth. She complicated the immediate dismissal of the "sagging jeans" style that is so popular with many youth regardless of class and color, though it is thought to have origins with the Black community. She talked about it as being both a tip to prison culture and a tip to refusing to fit in to the status quo. The sag functions to say, "We aren't part the mainstream, so why fake it."

And she eloquently pointed to the need for Black people to continue to work on our our gender relationships, particularly with each other, given the decimation of gender in our experience of slavery. She talked aobut how we used and continue to use style in ways that counter the decimation of gender in the Black experience.