Diedrick Brackens fell in love with weaving as a freshman at the University of North Texas. The machines, the meditative process — it was all very spellbinding. At 30, the artist now known for his intricately woven textiles, was given his first institutional solo exhibition.
Organized in 2019 by New York’s New Museum, Diedrick Brackens: darling divined is currently on view at UT Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, in the Contemporary Project space. The show features nine tapestries which richly weave mythology, history, and identity into stunning visual textiles hand-dyed by the artist himself. (It has been said that Diedrick enjoys color-coordinating his clothing and yarn while working in the studio.)
Cotton is Brackens’ fiber of choice — not just for its versatility, but its laden history. “It is the best gift to myself and my ancestors, I get to use this material in a way they did not,” he tells curator Veronica Roberts during an online Blanton talk last fall.
Influenced by West African weaving and American quilt making — as well as the European “Unicorn Tapestries” dating from the late Middle Ages — Brackens frequently explores Black identity and queer embodiment with an allegorical richness retold in the narrative of now.
The weavings in darling divined feature Black male silhouettes, their near-full scale all but enveloping the viewer. Brackens points out there is a long tradition of the silhouette in African-American art, from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. “I use myself as the reference point,” he says. “It is the body I know best and it’s always available.”
Brackens began creating these works in 2017, with mainstream media awash in images of police brutality, and a “golden age” of cinema and TV portraying Black characters in new ways and capacities. As an artist, Brackens wants to participate in this groundswell by “having bodies in repose or resting — doing anything but dying.”
Of the nine weavings in the show, all but one are displayed on the walls of the gallery. break and tremble (2019) is installed in the center of the room, on a wooden stand reminiscent of a loom. Brackens says it allows him to engage with the space more: “The act of weaving itself is so sculptural, and [the work] retains almost none its sculptural quality once it’s on the wall.”
There is also something painterly going on, between the work’s boxy perfection and its unfinished playfulness: a push-pull between the material and the medium. As Brackens says, textiles are heavily abstract even when they’re figurative. Strands of yarn hang off the weavings, signs of reaping (and sewing) after the fact.
Placing a tapestry in the center of the space presents a unique opportunity to admire the craftsmanship and detail from both sides. Where one dominates, the other dissolves; a figure on the front completely disappears on the back. break and tremble is made up of three layers — an interlacing yellow and blue, and a black thread hand-stitched just on the surface. It is this third layer which provides a “hidden” element that can only be seen from one side.
Brackens has lived in California for some time now, first in San Francisco for his MFA at the California College of Arts, and now Los Angeles. But much of his work references his Texas roots.
bitter attendance, drown jubilee (2018) marks a tragic Juneteenth event which took place in his hometown of Mexia back in 1981. Three young festival goers were arrested for possession of marijuana, and were taken into police custody by boat. The boat capsized, killing the teens; the officers survived.
Mexia, Texas is the site of one of the nation’s first Juneteenth celebrations, Brackens explains. “The center of Black liberation in this country had the bottom ripped out of it by a horrific event that mirrors so much of what we’re protesting today.”
Brackens wanted to reimagine this incident, which has haunted him as an adult even though it occurred before he was born. In his weaving, the young men who drowned that day are depicted as three catfish, tenderly plucked from the waters almost as an offering. Open shackles rest at the bottom of the lake.
By transposing beauty onto tragedy within the tapestry, Brackens has once again shown us that third layer — the thing that remains invisible from the other side. Catfish, says Brackens, are the most southern of creatures: they are a source of sustenance, but are also bottom feeders. They can crawl from water to land. They persist.
In the cup is a cloud (2018), a kneeling figure gently feeds two goats while a male stands over them with outstretched arms. Goats, like pigs (which also appear in this show), are considered unclean, unfit for consumption, according to the Bible. Brackens says growing up Southern Baptist instilled certain mores, but even the most devout beliefs bend to an individual’s sway. Such fractures can lead to self-transformation: a majestic purple sky adorned with mirrored stars spins a modern take on an ancient text. Brackens has intentionally reclaimed animals that have been mythologically maligned to reflect his own lived experiences and desires. Queer identity is a large part of retelling this narrative, which makes the domesticity of the medium all the more compelling.
Brackens believes that weaving is about to enter a rebellious teen phase. Artists of other mediums have already pushed limits and bucked convention, but weavers — they’ve been doing things in a very particular way. Brackens is ready to bend the rules and amend the story: “I want weavings to feel more organic than what the loom allows.”
On view through May 16, 2021 at the Blanton Museum of Art, UT Austin.