A Textile Artist's Historical and Anthropological Mission

Gylbert Coker


Memories, strip woven, double-weave dyed, cotton, 35 1/2 x 30 1/4”, 1990Karen Hampton will tell you definitely, she is a textile artist, not a quilter. She believes herself to have won that battle. When she began weaving, more than 30 years ago, there were few African American female weavers.

Considered an anomaly by many in the textile arts community, Hampton took on the challenge to prove that most weavers throughout the world were not only females, but females of color. We can see her determination to connect with those women throughout the world and throughout history in the physicality of her art. Her textiles reveal her depth of research in the discovery of a variety of historical and contemporary techniques for weaving cloth — handwoven methods, aged linens, all natural dying techniques, and digitally printed and hand-sewn cloth work.

The Los Angeles-based artist's work is on view in Journey North, a large, solo exhibition at the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, October 3 – December 20, 2015.

Born in 1958, Karen Hampton was apprenticed to the master weaver and natural dye specialist, Ida Grae in 1977. That same year she fell in love with Michael Bloom. The couple were free spirits and moved to Oakland, California for a period of time where they had their first son, Brandon. Seven years later they married and had their second son, Ethan. In 1990 they bought and managed a farm to raise angora goats and rabbits for their hair — fibers to be used in art.

Spirits Cry, woven linen and cotton, indigo dye, copy transfer, devoré, 52 x 36,”Hampton will tell you she is a storyteller at heart. She writes, “I consider myself…standing up for an under-represented retelling of the American story and hoping to leave a mark on this earth.” As both an artist and an anthropologist, she uses personal self-discovery to transform the traditional process of weaving into the creation of images that provoke discussions and jar accepted paradigms of history and aesthetics through the use of historical memory. 

Spirit Dance, re-purposed Kuba cloth, raffia cloth, fiber reactive dyes, dye sublimation printing and hand-stitched, 39 x 44Historical memory is a process, according to historian Pierre Nora, in which memories become a subject of study, particularly when great change takes place in society and ruptures the existent flow of events. As a way of explaining his thought process, Nora argued that in the case of France, for instance, industrialization and its replacement of peasant culture led to the study of peasant culture as the repository of collective memory. It was the rupture with the past that led to a self-conscious quest of memory.

Inspired by such possibilities within the process of historical memory, Hampton reverses Nora’s argument from a focus on collective memory to a focus in her art on subjective memory. Hampton argues the more personal her imagery and stories are, the more universal her voice becomes. This paradox arises not only because the matters she deals with are relevant, and may be disseminated and understood anywhere in the world, but because there is an altered relationship today between the personal and the global—global meaning postmodern as defined by the Nigerian curator and art critic, Okwui Enwezor.

Under a Shade Tree, layered silk organza and linen, pigment and hand-stiched, 24 x 28”, 2010In his description of postmodernism, Enwezor looks at artists of color (African, African American, Latino, Caribbean, and Asian) who are re-inscripting ‘self’ through the incorporation of voices of displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed people. Visually, he maintains, there is the refashioning of the field of contemporary art at large that exhibits a freedom to use all materials with emphasis on natural or found objects; privileging the process itself as well as the use of time and space.

As a postmodernist cast in  Enwezor’s mold, Hampton redirects the prism of feminism to directly engage questions of identity formation in terms of gender, sexuality, race and class, challenging what she see as limitations in the work of well-known feminist artists.  For example, Hampton regards Judy Chicago’s inclusion of one Indian (Sacajawea), one African American (Sojourner Truth) and one African (Hatshepsut, although it is doubtful that Chicago considered this Egyptian woman as African) among the 39 women represented at The Dinner Party as insufficiently diverse.  

Spirits Cry, woven linen and cotton, indigo dye, copy transfer, devoré, 52 x 36,” 2000Hampton’s feminism is more akin to the work of the late Ana Mendieta, who struggled to have her work recognized as aesthetically Afro-Cuban rather than solely Latina.  Mendieta’s use of chicken blood, feathers and her own nude body, for example, was a reflection of Santeria religious traditions.

Senga Nengudi (another model for Hampton whose feminism she emulates) uses natural and found objects to create soft sculpture that reflect the female form.  Her performance work explores the context of relationships between African American men and women.

Each of these artists is exploring colonialism, postcoloniality, and the politics of the subaltern concurrent with the postmodern as currently espoused by Enwezor.  Hampton’s  iconography of both historical and genealogical hybridity identifies and unites European, African and Native American connections creating a tri-cultural heritage of the Americas, the Caribbean, and the West Indies.

Invisible Child, painted warp, double weave, cotton, dye, discharge, copy transfer, colorized image, 16 x 69”, 1996Hampton sees weaving as a global practice that exists in all societies. It is produced primarily, although not exclusively, by women and has existed for thousands of years. In developing her visual vocabulary, Hampton has researched the weaving process back to the 17th century, to a pre-loom weave, where she discovered a finger technique used by American Indians.  It is this emphasis on acquiring a wide range of technical skills that makes it possible for Hampton to experiment with her weaving—a quality that is very much a key element in her artistic process.

Patriarch (George J.F. Clarke), hand stitched, natural dye, transfer image, 20 x 15Hampton’s experimentation is as integral to her process and creativity as the product itself. She blends Yoruba weaving techniques with the techniques of Native Americans, and she ages her cloth by using natural dyes. Even in her reinvention of the process for making indigo dye, Hampton reveals both the international history of the dye as well as the provocative historical narrative that focuses on the economy of enslavement. 

Patriots War, hand-stitched, linen, indigo, 61 x 88”, 2008In Patriarch (George J.F. Clarke) and Flora’s Daughters, Hampton illuminates the more complex and less well-known family relationships between European men and African women. 

 Flora's Daughters, 93 x 36, 2002Patriarch challenges conventional narratives of the abusive white male and the submissive house slave and directs us to look at an inter-racial couple and their children living openly in Florida under the Spanish flag.  

In Flora’s Daughters,  Hampton offers the meaning of freedom as seen through the eyes of a freed African woman.  In her stitching of the figure of Flora, she has her standing tall in a freshly-made dress. Freedom means being equal to her European husband.  It also means having the right to own her own property, to manage her own business, to raise and educate her free children, to see her children grow and become successful citizens. 

Diaristically, Flora’s Daughters is not only about Flora’s life, it is also about the artist. Here Hampton lists the names of female relatives that come between Flora and herself creating a visual umbilical cord connecting her to her female ancestors.

In Patriarch, Hampton transfers her ancestor’s portrait onto the cloth. His image is surrounded by hand stitched arrows that indicate the Clarke family’s escape to the Pelotes Island by traveling on the St. John’s River towards what is today Jacksonville, Florida during the Patriot wars. The two oblong shapes represent the island where they lived until the crisis of war ceased. The 33,000 figure represents the number of acres Clarke amassed over his life time which he divided equally among his eight children.

Foller de Risen Lawd, silk organza, linen, silk thread, 55 x 33 1/4”,  2014Foller de Risen Lawd is an example of Hampton’s experimentation with natural dyes and, specifically in this work,  indigo.  Indigo dye has been used for centuries throughout West Africa, India, later Europe and finally the Americas. 

The process for natural dying requires patience and flexibility.The dyestuffs, the heat, the water, the mordants and the length of time the fabric, yarn or fiber is exposed to the dye bath can all impact the outcome. The natural dyes are hard to control in larger and even small scale production runs. Even in her modified procedure, there is both the challenge and thrill of chance that 

Journey to Freedom, 2014, cotton, natural dyes, hand stitching, 25 x 43”, 2014In Journey to Freedom Hampton works with old linen.  In this piece, she  used an old cotton pillow case made to look aged with a mixture of tea and coffee.  Her stitches are used as stylus to sketch out the story of her many times great-grandfather’s escape from slavery.

Matthew Roberts was a slave on the Wye Plantation in Maryland. Following her stitching we are directed through Roberts’ flight, catching a ferry boat headed for Baltimore with “air air grop run hide ferry Baltimore.” We see the date 1863 which indicates that Roberts enlisted in the Colored Infantry of the Union Army and the great losses sustained by the infantry during battle. 

Roberts was wounded but survived because two Rebel soldiers recognized him from the Wye Plantation. His life was spared on the promise that he would go back and tell the Rebel’s families that they were alive. The story ends with Roberts receiving his military pension of $300. 

Errors and mistakes are important to Hampton. The Hopi (southwest Indian tribe) believed that through mistakes the ancestors can come and speak to us; it is the ethereal that breathes life into the cloth. Hampton embraces this belief which has enabled her to remain open to serendipitous occurrences.

John BrownIn 2014, Hampton visited Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and Washington DC’s Frederick Douglas House and the National Portrait Gallery, where she found a small, unnamed room housing a number of abolitionist’s portraits. In Washington, she also gave a lecture at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference and was introduced to the director of the Tubman Museum in Auburn, New York. 

From there Hampton traveled to Clinton, New York to prepare for the Hamilton College exhibition and discovered that Auburn was a nearby town where many abolitionists had lived.  They included Gerrit Smith and the Grimke sisters — abolitionists she’d been researching since 2000.  She learned that Gerrit Smith’s father had funded Harper’s Ferry and Frederick Douglass’ North Star newspaper.  Hampton's 2014 travel experiences inspired her to create a number of abolitionist-themed works including portraits of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gerrit Smith and Harriet Tubman, and Abolitionists Tale which shows points on the Abolitionists Tale, raffia cloth, dye, ground pigment, hand stitched, with linen paper, 39 x 69”, 2015Underground Railroad from Maryland's eastern shore to Philadelphia, a major hub where African American abolitionist William Still worked. 

 Pins and Needles, 2007Pins and Needles, 2007 is more than a textile, it is a shaped free form canvas on which Hampton paints and stains her images. The fabric is made up of individual strips. It is texturally harsh with porcupine quills woven into it and an overlay of a photograph of the artist as a child and a school bus positioned behind her.

Pins and Needles is the story of the artist as a six-year-old child. Her father, Albert Hampton, who was the president of an African American Savings and Loan bank and her mother, Yvonne Rowan Hampton, who was an accountant, were progressive thinkers. 

In 1964, Hampton’s parents formed a group called Parents for a Better Education. The group partnered with a predominately Jewish group in West Los Angeles to create a busing program called Trans-Port a child to challenge the city of Los Angeles to integrate their schools. 

Lady with Watches, vintage digital print on silk organza over color field print hand-stitched with silk thread, 14 x 22 1/2For 12 years, Hampton together with 26 other children would continue to participate in this voluntary busing program. Her life was divided between the friends she had at home, the children on the bus, and the children she knew in school.

The work metaphorically underscores the pain Hampton suffered during those years. The strips sewn together delineate segregated racial zones separating the whites from the blacks. In this work, Hampton makes a connection with Frida Kahlo who used a diaristic approach to her paintings. Here Hampton moves from the overview of the history of busing to the specific experience and the emotional scaring borne by the children during that movement. 

Karen Hampton’s work underscores the power of perseverance. The physicality of her work reminds us of our connectedness to other cultures and what we share in common. As a postmodernist, cut in Enwezor’s cloth, she is defining herself for herself. As a feminist she is telling us that she will not be defined within the context of mainstream feminism.  

Karen Hampton at her loom. (Wellin Museum video)Her work is not designed to shift a change in content but to shift a change in the logic of conversation—expanding the vocabulary in that conversation.

Consequently, when we look at Hampton’s work we see a variant of contemporary postmodernism in this the artist’s unique practices and intent. We see an artist who owns her voice, who is challenging how her history will be told, who is challenging how material can be used, and refusing to accept limitations—these facets representing her broader definition of postmodernity. Hampton, like other contemporary postmodernists of color, are artists who define themselves for themselves.

Gylbert Garvin Coker, Ph.D., is  an art historian who lives in Thomasville, Ga.