On Friday February 3rd I had the pleasure of visiting the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, an arts conservatory high school. I was there to speak to a group of juniors about the Unraveling Empire project, and the visit was a learning experience for me as much as them! I started out with an artist talk to a group of fifty students, which soon became a conversation about what they had learned the previous semester about 17th – 19th century global commodities trade, and how the research they had undertaken about cotton, silk, henna, indigo, and hemp played into the themes of the project. The conversation then shifted to the history of activist quilts, the feminist art movement, the difficult of representing the history of people who didn’t have access to books or documentation, and even tips and tricks for doing textile art on the cheap.
As someone who mostly works with adults, it was fascinating to talk to a group of people born in the 21st century to the history of the AIDS Quilt, and try to explain the experiences of people with AIDS in the early years of the outbreak.
In the afternoon I worked with a smaller group of honors students to design the second phase of the quilt. They split up into groups and poured over maps and data about textiles and the slave economy, and then made proposals about how to best represent the information on the quilt. They struggled with the challenges of balancing accuracy and aesthetics, but ultimately came up with some incredible proposals! Not only does integrating their ideas change the nature of the quilt from something that I designed and other people sew to a deeper collaboration, but it also makes it a stronger piece of art, and a better platform for relating history. Among other proposals, based on their desire to emphasize they distinct nature of slave ships compared to other commodity trade routes, we decided to add beading to the quilt design – also tying the project to an art form vital to the African diaspora, and the culture of New Orleans.