Through dreamlike woven tapestries, Texas-born artist Diedrick Brackens (b. 1989) explores African American and queer identity, his own life, and broader American history. He usually begins his colorful textiles by hand-dyeing cotton, a material that is cheap and ubiquitous, but for his “Banner Project” Brackens chose a different process. Working with Designtex on a commercial loom, Brackens foregrounds the fraught connections between hand and machine labor in the United States—specifically the cotton industry’s brutal reliance on enslaved people (including Brackens’s own forebears), who were forced to pick cotton by hand and enjoyed no profit when it was sent to the mills.
The tapestry depicts catfish swimming in water among reeds, watched closely by a solitary figure. Catfish, which thrive in muddy riverbeds in the American South, are often derided as common. But Brackens sees them as a symbol of his geographic and cultural roots, and throughout his work he frames them as worthy of consideration “in the way that the tapestries of the Middle Ages exalted unicorns, lions, dragons, and stags.”
Brackens’s banner responds to a tapestry in the MFA’s collection by John Henry Dearle (1860–1932), an artist who also looked back to the medieval period. As mechanization and factory production became more prevalent at the turn of the 20th century, Dearle and his peers from the British Arts and Crafts movement reacted to the perceived decline of art, craft, and even life itself by promoting the dignity of labor done by hand.
Commissioned for this exhibition, Brackens’s banner asks visitors to consider the extensive textile history in New England, where mills proliferated, often built on violent labor conditions for those who picked and processed their raw materials. But the motif of the catfish refuses any singular reading, offering the artist a way to reflect on “sustenance, my ancestors, and myself; it functions as a spirit linking the living and dead.”