After African-American slaves were emancipated in the 1860s, they had to make new, free lives for themselves without benefit of a financial foundation. “They just had to get on with it, and in many ways they were extremely resourceful in their homes, and in the ways they survived,” said Xenobia Bailey, a fiber artist whose ongoing installation, Sistah Paradise’s Revival Tent, appears in much wider than a line at SITE Santa Fe. “The women created this lifestyle of using recycled materials, whatever was in their environment, and they gave it this animated aesthetic that’s almost like music. You bring your own signature to it.”
Bailey, who lives in New York City, originally trained as an industrial designer in the 1970s, but soon came to question the value of designing for mass production. “I felt so culturally alienated,” she said, so she moved into crocheting hats and making art, always with a sense of construction, space, and a nod to community needs. She works in large-scale crochet pieces and mandalas with repeating patterns. Her themes come out of historical research into African-American communities, artists, and writers, the material culture of preserved slave quarters in the South, and creation stories, such as the one she wrote as part of Sistah Paradise’s Revival Tent, “The Gospel of Sistah Paradise.” In the gospel, it is revealed that slave traders have been snatching villagers from the Gold Coast of West Africa, home of master weavers and a powerful mystic named Sistah Paradise, whose cause is deliverance. She purposely gets caught by the slave traders in an effort to find and free her fellow villagers. Her revival tent is a home made from the humblest of materials. “Whatever textile you could find could be your home,” Bailey explained. “I made a crocheted tent. I made the first one just to see if I could do it, and I made the second one to see if I could do it again. I did installations that were almost like architectural models, and I would play around with reconstructing the aesthetic of funk.”
Funk, to Bailey, is the eclectic and colorful nature of recycled and upcycled materials, as well as their inherent functionality. Once rural emancipated slaves migrated north, found jobs, and began to be able to afford mass-produced goods, the aesthetic of funk disappeared, she said. “My whole utopian concept is that we didn’t have mass production and the aesthetic of funk was able to evolve, more so than it has. That’s what I’m doing with my practice. I want to have an aesthetic that someone can build something with their hands if they have models to work from. Patterns for a dress or whatever. I made a revival tent because it would be meaningful, and spiritual readers could be there to serve as counselors.”
Bailey’s crocheted pieces are also part of a much larger, symbolic tent for New Yorkers: They have been transformed into three mosaics, collectively titled Funktional Vibrations, and installed in the ceiling of the subway station at 34th Street-Hudson Yards, on the IRT Flushing Line, which opened in Sept. 2015.