By Iviva Olenick
Iviva Olenick is a Brooklyn born and based artist and educator. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French Language and Literature/Psychology from Binghamton University, and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Textile/Surface Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology. While working as a professional textile designer and weaver for nine years, she expanded her techniques and exposure as a visual artist using craft processes to share narratives. Focusing currently on the sociopolitical histories of textiles, she divides her time between her studio practice and a commitment to teaching children and adults at museums, non-profits, and public and private schools.
Shortly after the Whitney Museum of American Art opened in New York City’s Meatpacking District, I visited, casually snapping photos of works that caught my eye and posting them on Instagram. My attitude shifted from nonchalant to engaged and serious when I saw Malcolm Bailey’s Untitled, 1969. I knew from afar that the painting was about textiles, and thought it might be a blueprint or preliminary design.
Untitled, 1969 is a blueprint of slave ships flanking a scientific-looking illustration of a cotton plant. The slave ships are based on diagrams developed by British abolitionists in the late 1780s who wished to end the slave trade by exposing inhumane conditions on Triangular Trade routes from England, America, or the Caribbean to West Africa and back to America and the Caribbean.1 Linking slave ship diagrams to cotton and referencing blueprints, Bailey shows the mutual dependency of the textile and slave industries, aided and enabled by ports. Slave import and textile export were a blueprint for early American economic success.
Malcolm Bailey. Untitled, 1969, 1969. Acrylic on composition board. 48 x 71 15/16 in.
Taken with the clarity of Bailey’s image and message, I began looking for additional visual images linking slave labor, colonial American textile production, and overseas trade. I did some online research, adding search terms for women and textile harvesting, processing, and production, and found Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a British Antiguan whose family owned plantations in South Carolina. Eliza became the de facto head of the plantations when her father was called to fight in a war for the British. Intent on economic success, Eliza’s father sent her crops, including ginger and indigo. Initial attempts to make the crops flourish were unsuccessful, but Eliza persisted, and indigo took hold as a cash crop prior to the American Revolution and before cotton became king.
Indigo’s success relied on the physical labor of African descent slaves, who tended the crops, kept the fields weed free, harvested the plants, and transported them through a steeper vat, a fermentation vat, and a lime vat. They beat the plants and poured off large amounts of water as the leaves fermented, producing a stench strong enough that plantation owners located processing at least a quarter mile from where they lived. Karen Hampton details this process and the role of free and enslaved African descent women in early American textile production from harvesting to weaving. According to her research, indigo was the second largest crop, after rice, in North American colonies from 1745–1775. Britain required blue dye for its growing textile industry, and subsidized production and export from the colonies.2
Curious about the brief success of indigo and the role of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, heralded by some as a feminist as one of America’s earliest businesswomen, I ordered The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739–1762, a collection of notes to family members and friends, which gives glimpses into the attitudes of the time. Pinckney’s indigo success relied on the labor of African descent slaves, who were considered part and parcel of plantations. Managing slave labor was an unquestioned part of Pinckney’s role in holding onto her plantations’ profitability.
For me, an artist choosing to work with textiles and to support myself through a combination of commercial textile design, fine art and related teaching for the last decade, I feel a responsibility to understand the shifting role of my medium in United States history, its relationship to slavery and to contemporary art-driven activism. I am interested in developing a critical awareness of the ways we write and create history, and in the predominance of a white, wealthy, male perspective in historical accounts.
In some of my works teasing out the politics behind who is canonized historically and why, who is seen, heard and remembered and who is silenced, invisible or erased, I use hand painted and indigo dyed fabrics, embroidery, and beading to create images about the South Carolina-British indigo trade. I silhouette or remove images of enslaved women field laborers, representing their near absence from historical and contemporary consciousness. This is also my way of representing the absurdity of laborious textile processes—including indigo dyeing, weaving, embroidery, mending—as contemporary hobbies and artistic expression, given their tainted history.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the Indigo Trade. Iviva Olenick. 2016. Paint on fabric with cut fabric appliqué, embroidery, polyfill.
Absence Vs. Presence. Iviva Olenick. 2016. Cut fabric with paint, embroidered French knots, crochet.
Absence Vs. Presence, II. Iviva Olenick. 2016. Indigo dyed fabric with removed embroidery (as resist to the indigo dye); embroidery and beading.
The story of indigo and my discomfort with the ways the story is most commonly told (save Karen Hampton’s article) provide a specific, brief window into the role of enslaved African descent women and White plantation owners in early American textile production and economic growth. The story of textiles and ports is of course much broader, which leads me back to Malcolm Bailey’s Untitled, 1969. While Bailey’s painting specifically depicts cotton, perhaps the arresting blue background alludes to textile-related cash crops through slave labor including indigo and cotton. In all of the works in this brief discussion, blue can represent journeys over the ocean on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; the processing of indigo plants into dye by African descent slaves; and the way slavery and textile crops, the building blocks of the colonies and early United States economy, were blueprints for economic success assisted and enabled by ports.
- Detailed by Cheryl Finley at the Whitney Museum in her talk, “99 Objects: August 26, 2015 Cheryl Finley on Untitled, 1969 by Malcolm Bailey.” http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/AudioGuides?play_id=1319
- Hampton, Karen. Textile Society of America. “African American Women: Plantation Textile Production from 1750–1830,” (2000), Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, Paper 770. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/770