- By Joicelyn Dingle
When visual artist and educator, Adama Delphine Fawundu, was formulating in her mind-body, her current exhibition at the Penumbra Foundation in New York City, she happened upon a book by Éduoard Glissant. His words touched her and crystallized what she was about to do: create a visual conversation between she and her grandmother, an artisan of African fabrics. Her resulting work, For Mama Adama, is an ode to the connection with her namesake transformed into a new language.
Fawundu, a photographer of over 20 years, is best known for creating works featuring the human form—from her start capturing hip hop culture and music, to her more recent self-portraits and nudes. As an artist-in-residency at Penumbra Workspace, she dived into her grandmother’s fabrics using the photographic process as a way to consider textile-making as a symbolic form of how ancestral knowledge propels our potential. In her series For Mama Adama, she features works with no physical body, but demonstrates the idea that identity is not linear, and ancestral memories can take on new forms through its descendants.
Below, EBONY talks with the artist about her latest creations translating the creative DNA of her forebearers.
EBONY: Your father’s mother and your namesake, Adama, was an artisan of fabric-making in Pujehun, Sierra Leone. When were you first charmed by her skill as a craftswoman?
Adama Delphine Fawundu: I was seven or eight. I have this photograph of her where she’s wearing a gele, an African headwrap, that she made. And, my mother always had these fabrics; I knew that my grandmother made them. If someone was coming from [Sierra Leone], my grandmother would always send these fabrics with them. So, it was the relationship to those textiles that made me aware of what she did, and my mother receiving fabrics from her saying, “Grandma made these for us.”
I’ve sampled some of those very same fabrics in my work; so, there are fabrics that I used that are older than me—over 50 years old. I’m using bits and pieces, reconfiguring them into my own storytelling.
Being first generation American, born in Brooklyn, what made you so connected to her work?
I always felt connected to her because we have the same name, Adama. But her fabrics truly connected us. I’ve only met her twice in my life: once as a four year old and again in my twenties. The Sierra Leone Civil War, kept us from traveling more often. Then after that she passed away. But the physical thing I had, that she actually touched and created, are these fabrics.
How were you able to make photographs look like and feel, if you will, like fabric?
While I was at Penumbra, I created all of these works on Guinea bricade, which is the actual fabric used in Sierra Leone to do the garra—tie-dying and batiking. From there, I started using different fabrics as well. Some are prints on Hahnemühle rice paper that was I experimenting with. The Hahnemühle rice paper has such a delicate, beautiful texture that when you look at it, you think it’s a fabric. At the opening exhibition, people wanted to touch it. They couldn’t believe it wasn’t fabric.
What was your photographic process?
There were several. I made negatives out of her fabrics. Then I went into Photoshop, made patterns, and made negatives of those. I used those negatives to make cyanotypes, a photographic process borrowed from architecture where they make the blueprint. In the process, there’s a chemical that you use, expose it to the sun and it gives you a positive rich blue image. People look at it and think indigo, but it’s really cyanotypes. But because I’m using these patterns, indigo comes to mind and that was my intent.
And then there’s another process that I use, where I took the same negatives, went in to the darkroom and made silver gelatin prints out of those. I did some screen printing over them and that has another tactile feel to it.
I get it. It’s like sampling in hip hop. What started out as a jazz tune, add the drum beat, mix in a solid piece of soul music, and it becomes something else…
Yes, it’s a way of playing around with identity. We see people, we put a gender on them, we put a race on them and then we think we know everything, when in fact we don’t. I play with that illusion of identity with these pieces that really do look like fabrics.SEE ALSO
For instance I have a photo series of self-portraits I created with braids. I made that into a pattern—so you’ll have that overlay with my grandmother’s pattern hiding within all these pieces so you don’t really see it. So when I think about the work, I‘m thinking about the information that our body holds, the DNA that travels with us, the ancestral memory—it never looks the same but there are elements of these different pieces in us that create these new identities.
What are other examples of the ancestral memory that inspire you as an artist?
When I think about the African diaspora, I think about the power in that. I’m obsessed with Gullah and Geechee culture, and that’s a perfect example. I was just on Dafuskie Island in South Carolina and someone showed my mother and me a Gullah bible. Here we are reading it and understanding exactly what we’re reading because there’s that connection [in identity and language]. Thinking about the language, how that Gullah language was even created; there’s one type of memory that will use the syntax of some language in Africa, making a new language using these English words; put them together, and now you have something that’s new in a sense. To me, that’s the beauty of it all.
When we talk about the delusions of white supremacy, we talk about what was lost. It’s interesting to see the resistance to that type of racism come into what our body automatically does. You try strip us of our language? Our bodies say,”we’re going to make another language. “You stole people and abused them and brought them to this foreign country. Well, guess what? We’re still evolving, growing, living. And to me, looking at the diaspora—the richness of all the cultures comes from this resistance. The body just literally making new languages from hip hop to jazz, you know what I mean? Or going to other parts of the world, you go to Brazil and you see capoirea, this Afro-Brazilian martial art, transporting itself into the diaspora, which I find powerful. I’m obsessed with that.
So For Mama Adama is the “infinitesimal momentum” in the Eduoardo Glissant quote?
Yes! You know who else talks about it? I love Octavia Butler. She has this quote: “Here we are— Energy, Mass, Life, Shaping life, Mind, Shaping Mind, God, Shaping God. Consider—we are born not with purpose, but with potential.” This is what’s in the back of my mind as I’m working with these fabrics. Here I am; I never really got a chance to be close to my grandmother but I can use this knowledge that my body just creates intuitively to make something new.