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Person to Know: An Artist Whose Intricate Weavings Explore the Meaning of Home

By Melissa Smith

The artist Diedrick Brackens at his loom in his studio in Leimert Park, Los Angeles.
Chantal Anderson
The artist Diedrick Brackens at his loom in his studio in Leimert Park, Los Angeles.

On the first day of weaving class as an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, in Denton, the artist Diedrick Brackenswalked into his classroom to find 30 looms lined up in perfect rows in front of a cabinet filled with colour-coordinated yarn, like a “rainbow in the back,” he remembers. He was instantly hooked. Now 30, Brackens works from a studio in the Leimert Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where he makes intricate weavings mainly from cotton, a material he uses for its versatility, he says, but also “to pay tribute to those who came before me.” His grandmother picked cotton as a child in Limestone County, Tex., where she and much of the rest of Brackens’s family later settled. “She had to do this thing that comes along with this awful history,” he says. “And if that is part of my story, I have to make very beautiful things.”

Brackens does think that the work he makes is beautiful. “There is something undeniably pleasing about looking at fabric,” he says. He also considers cloth the ideal medium in which to tell his stories, which are so woven through with symbolism that they’re rarely as straightforward as they may at first seem. Brackens’s work is not only shaped by his identity as a queer black man but also strongly influenced by his relationship to his family, and their relationship to the South. As an army kid, he moved around a lot, but he’d always return to Limestone County to spend the summers with his grandmother and extended family.

In the years since he left Texas, in 2012, to earn his M.F.A. at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Brackens has quickly found recognition within the art world. Last summer, four of his works were included in the Hammer Museum’s biennial“Made in L.A. 2018” exhibition, and in October the Studio Museum in Harlem awarded him its annual Wein Prize, whose previous recipients include Simone LeighGlenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. This summer, his first institutional solo show in New York, “Darling Divined,” is on view at the New Museum.

Chantal AndersonBrackens carefully hangs an abstract work on the wall of his studio.
Brackens carefully hangs an abstract work on the wall of his studio.
Chantal AndersonA weaving on a wooden drying rack.
A weaving on a wooden drying rack.

Brackens’s work still has its roots in his childhood traveling to and from Texas. The centrepiece of his “Made in L.A.” presentation, for example, “Bitter Attendance, Drown Jubilee,” (2018), which is also on display in “Darling Divined,” represents an incident his mother and grandmother talked about often when he was a child: the day, in 1981, when three black boys died at a local Juneteenth celebration, around eight years before Brackens was born. Only after he looked into it as an adult did he learn the full story. The teenagers drowned while in police custody — with some alleging they were handcuffed — after the boat they were in capsized. (All three officers were acquitted in 1982.) In Brackens’s piece, two young men wade in a lake, a set of open handcuffs resting below the main scene (as if suggesting an alternate ending to this real-life story); one boy reaches down for a catfish while the other holds a much larger one. Brackens sees the catfish as representations of himself, of Southernness or, more abstractly, of “ancestors or spirits,” he says. “If this was the boys’ resting place,” he continues, “how do we commune with them? How do we continue to love them?” The work reflects on not only that event but also the complexity of love, loss and memory.

“The history of that event forever affected some of the dynamics in his hometown, in thinking about how police related to the black community,” says Erin Christovale, a co-curator of “Made in L.A. 2018.” “But I think overall the allegorical nature of his work holds its own as well.” Indeed, a mysterious, spiritual quality characterises much of Brackens’s work, in which each element has meanings both literal and metaphorical. Speaking about the 10 textile pieces in his current show — vivid weavings in which black figures and animals are silhouetted against vibrant bands of colour (dusty yellows, mineral greens, sumptuous purples) — Brackens explains how the works’ many encounters between humans and animals represent relationships between “friends and lovers and family members” and serve as vehicles for his intricate narratives.

Courtesy of the New MuseumBrackens’s “The Cup Is a Cloud” (2018).
Brackens’s “The Cup Is a Cloud” (2018).
Courtesy of the New MuseumBrackens’s “Bitter Attendance, Drown Jubilee” (2018).
Brackens’s “Bitter Attendance, Drown Jubilee” (2018).

Brackens also frequently looks to the work of Essex Hemphill — the Philadelphia-based poet whose writing, produced from the ’80s until his death in 1995, was firmly rooted in race and sexuality — to unpack the dynamics of male intimacy. “There’s often this doubling in Hemphill’s poetry between lover, between mentor, between father, between friend,” Brackens says. “And there is always this distance that’s hard to penetrate in regard to masculinity. That’s something that I’m very interested in with my father, and with father figures.” In his work “Opening Tombs Beneath the Heart” (2018), Brackens depicts an intimate moment, in hues of pink and brown, between two men who are just barely touching. Each figure is framed by an arched window, a visual reference to the church and a nod to Brackens’s Southern Baptist upbringing that complicates the viewer’s understanding of their relationship. In the background, a bleeding dead pig serves as a stand-in for the fatted calf, a biblical symbol suggesting a celebration to mark the return of the prodigal son.

These days, when Brackens is not teaching at California State University, Long Beach, he is studying historical migrations, and “all the ways black folks moved through and around the country,” he says. In particular, he is researching the Underground Railroad, charting a course of black migration that will, within his practice, play into the theme that has guided all of his work so far: a search for the true meaning of home.