Story by James Chow | Photos by Paula Kiley
Cotton production in the United States has been ever-present since its documented introduction in the 16th century. The crop today remains one of the United States’ greatest economic means of production, with Texas tipping its hat at the top of the list. However, the booming $21 billion industry has a tumultuous history that rode on the backs of black slaves and cotton farmers for centuries.
Born and raised in Texas, Long Beach State professor Diedrick Brackens remembers the stories of his family history. His grandmother was a domestic worker and the last relative he knew to have picked cotton, a history that he would thread into a career.
Brackens is a weaver, and his life is engulfed in cotton. Eighty percent of his weavings are constructed from the material, he says. For the self-proclaimed Wakandan Weaver laureate, weaving cotton is a reclamation to a culture’s past.
“To… go in the studio and work with this material in a way that's by choice and pleasant feels like a way to give back to these histories that were violent and oppressed people,” says Brackens, who is also the head of the fiber program in the School of Art.
For Brackens, the whole weaving process takes a month. It all starts with a lot of text. He writes everyday and compares the process of writing line-by-line to weaving back-and-forth. Then, he takes photographs of things he finds interesting in the world and makes sketches out of them. Once he feels the concept is ready to leap from sketch to string, he measures out the yarn, weaves it and sews it.
Viewers looking at Brackens’ figure weavings will notice the strong presence of animals and black human figurations. A constant theme throughout his work is the dichotomy between romance and violence, a nod back to the history of cotton and the spaces people of color have occupied throughout history. With each finished textile, Brackens hopes to tell stories without words.
`“So much of the work that I was seeing wasn't necessarily privileging stories that I was familiar with or talking about things that I saw in my day-to-day life,” Brackens says. “Once I really started trying to find my voice and making things that felt true to me, it sort of just became this hunt for things that felt culturally specific on some levels.”
Brackens’ black and queer identities are woven into some of his art. Growing up, he found sexuality as a taboo subject to talk about in his community. The professor hopes his students will also learn to pass on their personal narratives through fibers.
“I'm always asking my students to use their textiles to tell their stories or their community stories. I think that's what's most important to me,” he says.
Adrian Saff, a Long Beach State fine arts alumnus and Brackens’ assistant, echoes a similar sentiment about the power of woven storytelling.
“I think we share a lot of similar thoughts about just like the way that these materials take on lives beyond just what they are and how they have histories,” Saff says.
Working from both the university and his home studio, Brackens has produced multiple pieces exhibited in galleries and museums across the nation. His work was featured in the Made in L.A. 2018 Hammer Museum biennial exhibition and in 2018 earned him the $50,000 Wein Prize from Studio Museum in Harlem.
When Los Angeles-based Various Small Fires gallery owner Esther Kim Varet became acquainted with Brackens’ work at the Hammer, it stuck with her. Moments later, she found herself talking to the 30-year-old textile artist about a future collaboration with her gallery. That collaboration is now public, and it represents the first time Varet’s gallery has featured weavings.
“I was so moved by the work there. It stuck with me,” Varet says. “When an opportunity came up to all collaborate together, including with one of our artists who was already in the gallery, it seemed like such a nice kind of coming to head of interests.”
Brackens’ solo exhibition at the L.A.-based gallery will be an extension of his show at the Hammer. According to Varet, his work relies on figurative images and his own shadow. In this particular work, his pieces speak about his relationship with his father.
Despite the positive acclaim Brackens has received with his work, his practice isn’t common across contemporary art galleries nationwide that typically showcase traditional painting, sculpture and video media. Weaving is associated with the arts and crafts movement.
However, Brackens’ colleagues have taken notice of his bridging the gap between contemporary art and arts and crafts circles. By connecting utilitarian craft with traditional art-making, Diedrick has been called a “visionary” by his colleagues.
“He kind of murdered the [traditional fiber] program and resurrected it with a very fresh take on fiber arts: utilizing craft but really pushing it further in contemporary arts,” says Megan Macuen, a graduate student in the fiber program.
One day, Brackens hopes to buy his own cotton farm and spin his own crop. He likes the idea of giving purpose with his textiles and creating home goods.
“Weaving's history is about making utilitarian objects,” Brackens says. “I'm gonna grow my own cotton and I'm gonna make my work.”