The fireplace surround in artist Malene Djenaba Barnett’s Brooklyn home tells a deeply personal story. What began with making ceramic tiles, while perusing a Master in Fine Arts at Temple University, has resulted in this intricate installation that she calls her “legacy wall.” Not only did Barnett create each pattern freehand, make the molds, mix the clay, hand press each tile, glaze them, and fire them, she even intentionally “cracked” them. But legacy for her is about more than process, it’s also about making connections (which—as the founder of the Black Artists & Designers Guild, a global platform championing the work of Black artists, makers and designers—Barnett does regularly). We caught up with her over Zoom in Jamaica, where she’s currently doing a residency under a Fulbright Grant, to find out more.
Tell us about this installation, why do you call it your legacy wall?
“I started making these test tiles and when I was firing a set of them, they cracked. I had glazed them so beautifully, spent all this time, I decided not to look at it as a mistake. I looked at it as the metaphor to the Black diaspora, because my work is really focused on unraveling family histories in the Caribbean. My mother is from St. Vincent, my father was from Jamaica. While pursuing my MFA, I was researching how the Black diaspora came about, how the Caribbean came about. So when I looked at each fragment—because the histories of the Black diaspora are all fragmented and we're constantly looking for and discovering fragments of our history and then piecing it together—I looked at the clay as a metaphor, a tool for creating conversations around those histories. Being part of the Black diaspora, one of the beauties is that we could take all these fragments and put them together and create new narratives. So, when I saw that the cracks could create this story, I started intentionally cutting the tiles to keep in mind how the diaspora came about through the Atlantic slave trade. Our history and our culture were intentionally cut, so I incorporated that into the work. I have the ability to put these pieces together to create new history, to show the beauty of the people, and the joy around the culture.”
And how do the glazes you chose reflect that? The colours are striking.
“I use specific colours relating to materials from the region. Blues represent the indigo. There's a crackle glaze I created to represent the sugar that was milled. And there's a metallic I use for moments of reflection. Yes, those histories were horrific, but then also thinking about how do we still build, and about how far we've come. It will also give people who are not familiar with that history, a chance to reflect and think about how these places have come about. I’m also using a red clay body, which is a low fire clay, which I had to keep in mind to formulate the proper glaze and the combination of colours. I wanted to make sure you still see the clay body because I look at clay as a tool for grounding the community and for liberation. In my research, I found that during the 18th century, enslaved women were allowed to make pots so the planters didn’t have to buy them. They were called Yabba pots and they were used for cooking and serving food. The making of the pots was a collaborative effort. Someone would dig the clay, someone would make the pot, someone would fire it. They would also have opportunities to sell these pots in the market to potentially buy their freedom. So I look at the clay as a moment, even during bondage and enslavement, that these women had a moment to feel grounded and free, where they took agency over themselves and how they were able to provide for their family.”
And you’re in Jamaica continuing that research?
“My work is really focused on creating Black archives and one of the areas I have been researching is potters and ceramic artists of the Caribbean. It’s very hard to find the information. There are very few books and even if there are books, you don’t hear the person’s story. So I wanted to come here and start documenting each maker, in their own voice, through video and photography. I’m starting in Jamaica, but the idea is to go throughout the whole region and document all of the potters, ceramic artists, and those working in clay. Because to create a more inclusive craft history, we need to have the information. This is my way of contributing to the inclusivity of conversations around craft histories, by providing this information to the public eventually.”
“One of the most fascinating things, and the beauty of being here, is that I’m specifically focused on hand building techniques because these are ancestral to us. Looking at the traditions that were brought over during enslavement, and how they still are practiced today, pottery is one of them. When I’ve met some of the potters, they're still firing the pots the same way that they are today in Ghana or Senegal or Burkina Faso. And what's so interesting is that when I shared pictures of the potters here in Jamaica with my friend in Senegal, they were shocked because it looks just like it in Senegal, just like Burkina Faso. The landscape, the methods of firing pots, the look of the clay, the pottery making process. You could not tell the difference. And that's what I talk about with culture. How regardless of enslavement and every form of colonization or oppression, culture cannot be broken. When you see these threads, there's no coincidence. This is culture and how it's continued, and my work is really building on that legacy of making.”
This project is going to be so incredible when you’re finished and able to share it. What form will that take?
“I’m doing interviews, documenting the processes, doing fine art photography, portraits, process photography. I will be doing talks and thinking about a book project around the work and see what else comes out of it. But in the meantime, I’m making a new body of work in clay, working with the local clay. And then I’ll have an exhibition at Jamaica’s Edna Manley School of Visual and Performing Arts in the Fall. And I’ve been thinking about public art sculptures as well as sculptural objects. And the beauty of the legacy wall is that people are looking at it as more than just tile on the fireplace. To me they're ceramic fragments. It’s a sculpture. And that’s what I really want. For us to look beyond what we imagine.”
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Photos courtesy Malene Barnett