The threads of memory



Colombian collectives Sarah Hooks Oldham and Rosana Paulino construct counter-hegemonic images that call into question stereotypical views about class, ethnicity and gender

Rosana Paulino, from Stretched (1997)

In a recent article, psychoanalyst Paulo Endo highlights the work of two Colombian collectives – Seamstress of Memory e Women Weaving Sueños and Flavors of Peace from Mampuján –, which emerged after the “fratricidal wars” that bloodied the country since the 1960s. Founded in 2013, the first collective, made up mostly of women, presents itself as a “space for meeting, healing and collective construction, in which, From the act of sewing and other knowledge, the historical memory of the victims is reconstructed”. The group, in this way, intends to denounce and give visibility to violent episodes as a way of fighting against impunity and oblivion, filling gaps in official or institutional history.

The second collective was founded in 2004 as a form of protest against the forced displacement of residents of the town of Mampuján, which occurred four years earlier. Made up of Afro-descendant women, who learned the craft of making patchwork quilts from the Mennonite missionary Teresa Geiser, the group has two central objectives: reporting forced displacements, massacres, kidnappings, torture and persecution carried out by paramilitary groups; and the evocation of daily crafts, community meetings and ancestral and local history.

Collective Women Weaving Sueños and Flavors of Peace from Mampuján

Endo establishes a parallel between sewing and a collective analysis session: “Women gathered to weave almost invisible objects with thread and needle – the attentive journey of piecing together fragmented and lost memories. The slow and meticulous time of memory that is made point by point, vaguely, delicately in the time of life that lasts and remains. The time of sewing, similarly, stages the time of elaboration”.

This is not the only aspect that catches the author's attention. The panels that result from this work enchant “for their effects of color and shape, and retell a lived story, juxtaposing life at the moment it was being destroyed.

This life, however, finds its thread in the joining of panels that present panels in which life, death, past, future reveal an impressive simultaneity in the interpretation of the present. The decision to live, despite, supposes the representation of what was destroyed, what remained and what still remains to be rebuilt in panels that look more like models of previously undreamed dreams”.

The transformation of a personal narrative into a choral manifestation is followed with lively interest by Endo: “In these works, seeing the seamstresses at work allows us to perceive a performance in which pain also follows its path punctuated by the needles that leak the fabrics to bring them together. […] Looking is the condition of seeing, and seeing up close is the condition for disturbing the condensed establishment of traumatic pain. The seamstresses return to the unbearable scene to create new visibilities, at the same time that works emerge that reveal themselves to be collective, plural and diverse”.

The bloody dispute between guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups is the basis of the actions of the two groups, which demand not only the right to memory, but also the possibility of constructing narratives from the point of view of the victims and their families through reports. visuals that publicly denounce the violence that affected their lives. It is still significant that the impulse to create Seamstress of Memory came from the artist Francisco Bustamante, who published the testimony of a woman who had three daughters murdered by paramilitaries and decided to create a patchwork quilt with their clothes. The act of sewing together fragments made the needle an effective instrument for building memory and healing trauma, also functioning as a pretext for dialogue with society. As Marina Salazar, one of the group’s members, states: “it’s about mending the wounds that people have when they arrive at the seamstress”.

Collective Seamstress of Memory

Patchwork quilts made with reusable remains of clothes that Sarah Hooks Oldham received from white people in lieu of wages, or with pieces of clothing worn by her own children are evoked by bell hooks in one of the chapters of Anxieties: race, gender and cultural policies, published in Brazil in 2019. Through the story of maternal grandmother Baba, an excellent patchwork quilt maker[1], the author recovers a collective history erased from the social imagination, led by enslaved black women. One of his hypotheses is that the “crazy quilt”, that is, the quilt made with irregular pieces of different types of fabric, without a determined pattern, was invented by enslaved black women who worked for white ladies, from whom they received, in turn, sometimes, some sophisticated farmhouse scraps.

Initially a producer of “crazy quilts” due to lack of financial means, Baba was no less creative: she invented combinations with her own imagination to create decorative pieces to be used as bedding and to cover cotton mattresses. For her, quilting was “a spiritual process that taught about giving of yourself. It was a form of meditation that released the 'self'.” An art “of stillness and concentration”, “an activity that renewed the spirit”, the manufacture of patchwork quilts was seen by her as “a work typical of women”, capable of giving “harmony and balance to the psyche”, of “' calm the heart and ease the thoughts'”.

A practice that dates back to the 19th century, quilt making was seen by its practitioners as a form of meditation. But its meaning was not restricted to this dimension. Needle work was often a vehicle for expressing one's own creative energy and releasing pent-up frustrations, leading C. Kurt Dewhurst, Betty MacDowell and Marsha MacDowell, organizers of the book Artists in Aprons: Folk Art of American Women (1979), stating: “Women's thoughts, feelings and lives themselves were inextricably linked to the drawings as firmly as the layers of fabric were tied to the threads”. Baba’s work is part of this lineage of artists who understood the “aesthetic value” of their works, as she made increasingly sophisticated quilts and, in some of them, demonstrated that she was a “family historian and storyteller”.

The activity of “family historian” was not limited to the manufacture of quilts, the underlying concept of which she liked to remember to establish a link between the artifact, the chosen fabrics and people's lives. For Baba, Bell concludes, quilts “were maps that charted the course of our lives. They were the story itself, as well as the life being lived.” Sarah Hooks Oldham had created “illustrated genealogies” on the walls of her residence, through which family members learned the importance of a certain arrangement of images, the reason why certain photographs were placed in one place and not another. Unlike albums that would only be opened if someone asked for it, the walls were a “public announcement of the primacy of the image, of the joy of creating images”. In a culture dominated by racial segregation, such walls were fundamental in the “decolonization process”, as they proclaimed “our visual complexity. We saw ourselves represented in these images not as caricatures or cartoon figures; we were there in the full diversity of body, being and expression, multidimensional.”

The genealogies constructed by Baba through invisible threads were essential for the perception of himself and for the configuration of the family's identity: “They provided a necessary narrative, a way of entering the story without words. When the words came in it was just to make the images come alive. Many elderly black people, who appreciated images, were not literate. The image was crucial documentation for maintaining and affirming memory. This was true for my grandmother who could neither read nor write. I focus on her walls in particular because I know that, as an artist (she was an excellent quilt maker), she arranged the photos with the same care with which she made the quilts.”

Rosana Paulino, memory wall (1994-2015), photo by Isabella Matheus

In the same period in which Bell presented his reflections on “black life” seen through photography, the young Rosana Paulino created the first version of memory wall (1994), in which a family genealogy was created in the form of patuás, that is, amulets linked to Candomblé. In an interview given in 2018, the artist recalls that the format given to the work – small cushions finished in a buttonhole stitch with colored threads, in the center of which xerographic photographs were placed – was suggested by a patuá placed “over the entrance door of the room for ten years, approximately. No one passes under an object for 10 years without being touched by it. So, using this way […] was logical. The format also talks about the other members of my family linked to religion, a more urban religiosity, mixed with Catholicism. It is, therefore, a process that comes from the inside out, and is not concerned with satisfying certain theories, whatever they may be.”

With these words, Paulino highlighted the relationship between the format of the work and the ethnic identity of his family, characterized by the practice of a “mestizo culture”. The statement that the work, completed in 2015, had the property of “connecting, not only symbolically, but also physically, the components of the family and the sociocultural origins from which I derive”, allows us to think of a parallel with hooks' reflections on the photography, starting with the choice of the wall as a support for the portraits that make up the work. By creating a genealogy through images, the artist reaffirms not only the need to maintain links with the family group, but also to keep them safe from the losses of the past. Composed of identity portraits, individual portraits and group photographs, the wall designed by Paulino calls into question the white perception of blackness and urges the black observer to see the images of their fellow human beings with new eyes, triggering a reflection on “racism internalized".

The artist, who states that she does not feel represented by “images that, almost always, insist on placing black descendants in an inferior and/or stereotypical position”, faces this issue through interference in some images that are colored with watercolor to highlight clothing with luminous spotlights, reminiscent of the retouching processes carried out in photographic studios. The same occurs with the coloring of some backgrounds that bring the faces to the foreground, thus giving the model a protagonism not anticipated in the matrix image.

The critical operation becomes even more emphatic when, in one of the possible montages of the set, the same image is presented side by side in the color version and in the black and white version. “Living presences”, the portraits displayed on the wall by Paulino present an additional religious aspect: they constitute a peculiar “altar”, which creates a relationship between the living and the dead (hooks), and/or refer to the Roman cult of ancestors, for through a family tree woven in a random and fragmentary manner, marked by repetition and permutation (Fabris)[2].

In this way, the private archive of the Paulino family takes on the aspect of a collective portrait of a marginalized population that demands its own right to a dignified image of itself and, therefore, different from that constructed by the “racist tradition that reduces black people to the animalistic” (Erber ). Driven by a political purpose, the daughter of the embroiderer from Freguesia do Ó, who was educated “old-fashioned”, taking a liking to sewing and cloth, lovingly sews the amulets of memory wall, giving visibility to existences that would otherwise be nothing more than anonymous figures in the undifferentiated crowd of the big city[3].

Creating from within, that is, from forms and structures that do not impose themselves at first sight, Paulino shows that his hands are not only at the service of configuring an extended family chronicle, as he can dispense with dedication to firmly expose the denunciation of daily and continuous violence. This is what is explained in Stretched (1997), whose origin must be sought in “problems related to their condition in the world”. Aware of her own “condition of being a black woman”, who experiences the “daily challenge” of facing a “prejudiced and hostile” world, the artist appropriates objects that characterize the traditional feminine sphere, such as fabrics and threads. But appropriating it has a particular meaning. The lines used in the new work “modify the meaning, sewing new meanings, transforming a banal, ridiculous object, altering it, making it an element of violence, of repression. The thread that twists, pulls, changes the shape of the face, producing mouths that don't scream, creating knots in the throat. Eyes sewn shut, closed to the world and, above all, to their condition in the world.”

Rosana Paulino, from Stretched (1997)

Stretched It is made up of six xerographic portraits of black women, transferred onto fabric, which call into question the automatic association between sewing and feminine understood as delicacy and passivity. Taken by a silent anger, the artist furiously attacks the images printed on the fabrics. Thick and aggressive black lines disfigure the women's effigies, giving the impression of wanting to reproduce the violence to which they were subjected in the privacy of their home. The eyes, mouths, foreheads, necks and noses of the six anonymous women are marked by a rough seam that the artist defines as “suture”. In the aforementioned 2018 interview, she makes a point of stating: “I don't embroider, I sew. And more than that: I almost always use sewing in the sense of suturing, that is, of joining things by force. This makes all the difference in my work, since I'm talking about violence”[4].

The clarification given in the interview further reinforces the political nature of the operation, which still presents traces of gestural theatricality, coldly conceived, but executed with violent expressiveness. Was Paulino seeking a kind of “funereal baroque” with their faces disfigured by the rough suture lines that attack the real and make the artistic gesture problematic (Buci-Glucksmann)? Or would he be dialoguing, in his own way, with the tradition of gestural painting, in which the canvas was an “arena” for the artist's action and no longer a space to “reproduce, recreate, analyze or 'express' a real or imaginary object ”? Or would he be close to Arnulf Rainer's graphic interventions on photographs of faces and bodies, which referred to an overlap between partially rejected painting and the artist as a natural person (Riout)? 

Taking a political stance and demanding new materials to create works of art are not mutually exclusive, as Paulino defends the right to appropriate “everyday objects or undervalued elements to produce my work. Banal, unimportant objects. Using objects that are almost exclusively the domain of women.” The denunciation of domestic violence, encouraged by contact with the sister's work with women victims of abuse, does not exclude the possibility of challenging traditional modes of representation based on noble materials and allegorical and idealized figures.

The option for the frame as a support for images leads to another approach to the world of art. The format undoubtedly evokes the tondo, used since antiquity, but which reached its peak during the Renaissance, featuring works by Filippo Lippi (Adoration of the Magi, 1445), Sandro Botticelli (Madonna of the Magnificat, 1483), Hieronymus Bosch (The prodigal son, 1500) and Michelangelo (Holy Family, 1506), among others. The fact that Paulino chose a format that symbolizes perfection is ironic: the meaning of the support is called into question by the violence of the suture that makes the female effigies that seem to emerge from a distant past, transformed into a present, even more diaphanous and ghostly. painful by an energetic and critical intervention. 

The purposefully imperfect stitching establishes an ineluctable link between present and past. The faces disfigured by crude tacking do not just refer to domestic abuse; bring to mind even more serious aggressions, rooted in Brazil's collective unconscious. As Dária Jaremchuk wrote, the portraits displayed in Stretched reverberate the difficult social condition of people of African descent, highlighted by the “apparent line” and “rough embroidery”, which resembles “operations of stagnation or impediment. Poorly done stitches and sutures seem to act on deep cuts. If black people were tied, gagged and silenced as slaves, their images in the series Stretched bring to light remnants of that condition.”

The denunciation of a critical situation that Brazilian society is unable to resolve becomes even more striking with the choice of female portraits, which expose a “double oppression, of race and gender”. Ana Paula Simioni is right when she writes that the exposure, intervention and transformation of black bodies is “a radical act, as it highlights how much they […] are […] objects understood, created and represented through discourses (always) politicians". In this context, formal elements play a determining role: by removing from the embroidery any trace of “delicacy, resignation, meticulousness and passivity traditionally associated with a supposed essential femininity”, the artist subverts “the meanings of images and historical discourses about women, through a displacement of procedures from the history of art itself”.

Putting your hands at the service of building a collective memory can take on different connotations, as the cases analyzed prove. While Colombian collectives fight for recognition of the violence suffered by vast portions of the population through works in which the denunciation is made explicit in subtle and simple plots, but not without a critical bias, Rosana Paulino adopts two different strategies in the initial moments of his career: the configuration of a possible genealogy of a marginalized group, which moves from the private to the collective, granting dignity and citizenship to anonymous faces separated from History; the raw and merciless denunciation of the exclusion and submission of the black population, which continues to play the role of “other” in a society marked by racism and machismo. Far from wanting to please or seduce the viewer, the artist uses a timid gesture in the alignment of the family tree of a modest family, and an aggressive and transgressive gesture in denouncing violence that has been perpetuated for centuries, taking place in the body of black woman its most significant link.

Apparently, Sarah Hooks Oldham's performance does not fit into this frame of reference. But it is necessary to take into account that her concern with beauty responds to the community purpose of creating an atmosphere of peace and serenity, even in adverse conditions. According to this vision, beauty resides in everyday tasks such as gardening, the manufacture of patchwork quilts, the restoration of discarded objects, the creative qualification of the space of vernacular architecture... In this context, memory plays a fundamental role, since it is about transmitting lessons generated in a universe that is alien to monetary exchanges, constantly threatened by mass culture.

In different ways, the Colombian collectives Sarah Hooks Oldham and Rosana Paulino construct counter-hegemonic images that call into question stereotypical views about class, ethnicity and gender, in a constant challenge to official power structures. The memory created by these devices is contrasted with the critical memories of these social actors who explore new territories, create new maps, propose other versions of history, and make tradition a living legacy to be constantly updated. It is significant that, in the rewriting of history, the Colombian collectives and Rosana Paulino mobilize the vision of the body-witness, as it was upon him that the most violent actions occurred and it is to him that one must turn to not let the memory of such acts with gestures of resistance to the oppression of the present and of resignification of a past that is still very much alive and active.

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (UFRGS Publisher).


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[1] The author describes all the activities carried out by her maternal grandmother in a “small segregated town” and in a “marginal space where black people (although contained) exercised their power”: Baba “made soap, took worms from the ground to use as bait , set traps to hunt rabbits, produced butter and wine, sewed blankets and broke chickens’ necks.”

[2] The text “Sewing memory” was originally published in the folder of Rosana Paulino’s first exhibition, held at the Centro Cultural São Paulo in 1994.

[3] Dária Jaremtchuk has a different reading of the work, which “reveals the continuity and permanence of conflicts. The social and historical conditions that are repeated can be inferred by the multiplication of worn and faded faces, suggesting the continuity of subordinate roles in the pantheon of heroes of official history and by the scarce and timid knitting that involves, articulates and fixes the black characters in the universe of handwork".

[4] The artist emphasizes this idea again in an interview given in 2021: “And the way I do the sewing is a suture, as if it were surgical. / What is a suture? You have to take two parts, force them together and sew them together. It is an extremely violent action. […] So it’s not embroidery. The idea of ​​suturing is important because it tells a story. […] Us Stretched (1997), which are very poorly made seams, and in the Settlement (2013), I bring very violent processes. / When I use embroidery, I use it with a tone of irony.”

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