At the center of the exhibition Karen Hampton: The Journey North, on view in the Textile Gallery through April 23, a door-sized tapestry of aged cotton and silk organza hangs from the ceiling—suspended from a horizontal branding iron. The cloth is embroidered with the outline of a dress, and filled with a haphazard list of the names of the women for which the piece is titled—Flora’s Daughters. Flora was a progenitor of Hampton’s, a slave in Florida who was manumitted by her common-law husband George Clarke in the early 1800s. The branding iron, chillingly echoing those used by America’s 19th-century slaveholders, bears a letter “K” stamp, presumably for “Karen,” a name implicitly threaded through a long loop of cloth atop the tapestry. This is Karen Hampton, hoisting up her heritage and its culture.
In the same way, Hampton’s living history lines the walls of the gallery. In each piece, warp and weft blend autobiography, historical research, archival photos, and fiber arts techniques—from stitching in cotton and raffia to dyeing with West African indigo recipes.
The exhibition, organized by the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, is essentially a deconstructed patchwork depicting Hampton’s decades-long public engagement with her genealogy, a family moving steadily toward the North and what it stood for. And this family ranges from her actual ancestors, such as distant aunts, to intellectual forbears who stood against the oppression of people of color, like John Brown and Frederick Douglass.
“I am very conscious when I share family of all the ramifications, and of the energy of culture,” she says. “It’s a very political act. When I am making one of my pieces, I think, every time the needle pierces the cloth, I’m digging down into history and bringing up new energies.”
Hampton flies to Hawai‘i this week (her third trip to the islands) to give a gallery talk, a lecture, teach a workshop, and speak at PechaKucha. Taking a short break from preparing for all these events, she gave us a few minutes by phone last week to unravel The Journey North.
How did this exhibition end up coming to the Honolulu Museum of Art?
It was twofold. I had met [curator of textiles] Sara Oka in 2006, in Toronto at the Textile Society of America conference. Then I spoke with her when my show was in the works at the Wellin Museum.
Then, Stephen Goldberg, who is the co-curator of the original show, and I met in 2012. When he heard the story about the kind of art that I made he was very interested in it, and he said I think that some people at his school [Hamilton College] would be interested in it, so he advocated for it. But the other part of it coming to Hawai‘i was the fact Stephen had been on the faculty at the University of Hawai‘i prior to his moving back east and teaching at Hamilton College. So he was very interested in traveling the show.
A lot of your work is about looking back in time at your personal history, and bringing that history forward with you, into next contexts. What does it mean to you to have this show move to Hawai‘i?
It’s really, really exciting for me to have it coming to Hawai‘i. My looking at my family and examining my own history and my being an artist has been about a search for community, and I began this journey because in the mid-90s I couldn’t figure out how I fit into the field of textiles. I just wasn’t accepted within the field, so I made a change in my work, and the change was really where I said, “The only thing I know is what I know.” I started looking inside my own story and making work that was reflective of my own life and my own experience. My undergraduate training is in art and anthropology, and I saw that within the United States, textiles—the entire field of textiles and fiber—is so Eurocentric. But in the rest of the world, the people who weave in particular are people of color. So it has always been my effort to give voice to my ancestors, and to open up the floodgates for other people of color to make what they make, and express themselves, and talk with pride about their heritage and their place in the world.
That can really resonate within Hawai‘i, where there is a strong textile tradition, from Hawaiian quilt making to immigrant families’ rich textile traditions. A lot of people here may make special connections with the historical dimensions of your work.
I am truly excited. I am a digger. I am going to be participating in PechaKucha, and I am doing it on inspiration. So I was looking through photographs of mine, of how I go digging and things like that. People frequently keep culture in their homes, and they don’t share it on a grand scale. I want to open that door, and enable people to tell their stories in as much glory as they can. It’s healing. That’s the essential thing in what I do—it’s to heal, heal myself, and then on a grand scale, it’s to heal the world.
Your flag piece Lessons says, “culture is the greatest defense against slavery.” That seems to be a historically rooted mantra, but for indigenous peoples, like those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at the moment, or Hawaiians in the sovereignty movement here, that mantra bears much resonance in the present.
That’s the whole thing. I feel like I live on a plane between three times—between the ancient, the ancestors, and the present. I try to bring that dialogue back and forth. History has been told by those in power, and those moments when we who are not in power get a chance to open up the historical record and make a mark, it’s making a mark for all people.
You have also talked about how your process of creating these works has been not only an examination or presentation of history, but a way of engaging with it personally.
It really is. Because of the kind of work I do, I feel like I know the ancestors. I do that primary research, and then within that I go into really an emotional state of knowing, where I am able to see and feel their lives.
Since the works on view cover at least 20 years of production, and very personal stories, do you ever feel vulnerable?
That’s an interesting question. Sometimes I do, but I feel like I have to do productions on myself. I feel like it’s really necessary, but sometimes I do feel scared that I’m crossing some dangerous waters.
Is The Journey North the end of this ongoing life project, or is it still evolving in 2016?
It is evolving. I did an artist residency last year in Brazil for seven weeks, in Bahia, and that really influenced my new work. And two years ago I spent some time in the Nevada desert at a very large petroglyph site, and that really resonated. Right now I am in the studio starting to work on a series of work that’s about creation myths. That can and will take me to a lot of places in the world.
I choose sites, and then I start digging into a lot of old religious energy and using that to help draw me into whatever I am going to be working on. I’ll give you an example. The last time I was in Hawai‘i was in 2005, and I had an experience that really left a mark on me. The movie Whale Rider had just come out, and I saw it in Honolulu with an entire audience that was Hawaiian, and there was something that was so beautiful about watching it with native Hawaiians whose ancestors were from the same part of the world as New Zealand, where the movie is about, and to have it be told as a respectful myth. I am always looking for places where culture is being respected.
Learn more about The Journey North and related programming.