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“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”: Ancestral Quilting for the Future

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”: Ancestral Quilting for the Future

To say Dail Chambers was born to be an artist seems an understatement. Her father, brother, and uncle are all Ohio-based fine artists. On her mother’s side of the family, her great grandmother and great aunts are the artisans she credits for her love of making quilts and jewelry. All along her artistic journey, these two different backgrounds often clashed, demanding she question and sometimes redefine what she knew of as “real” art. Her quilt “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” not only serves as a sort of culmination of her artistic selves; it, interestingly enough, represents the liberation of her art from both the constraints of colonial conventions and the carefully high standards set by black matriarchs. 

Above (main image): A close up of the mother figure in Dail’s “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” quilt. Left: Dail Chambers (background) shows her “Anything Quilt” to Mississippi artist Treasure Shields Redmond.

All images in this essay are courtesy of
Dail Chambers

Dail’s energy is kinetic, as one might expect of someone whose work often carries the theme of migrations. She spent her childhood between Mississippi and St. Louis and her adult life living throughout the Midwest, where she was fortunate to find common ties everywhere she went. “Mississippi is everywhere,” says Dail. “When I talk to folks from Chicago, they are all from Clarksdale. When I go to St. Louis, some of the founding members of church institutions are from Clarksdale. When I go to Memphis, it’s the same thing. Mississippi is basically all up and down this river.”

...Chambers uses her fine art installations to underscore the artistic thesis that how we treat landscape and land is how we treat black women.

Dail Chambers, the Fine Artist

When asked what kind of art she did, she responded: “I do everything. What don’t I do? I’m a multimedia artist.” Dail, to no surprise, could recall no point in her life that she was not involved in art. She was the kid that sucked up to teachers to get to do the bulletin board. At the age of six, she learned to sew by hand, stitching doll clothes and making her first attempts at quilt blocks with her aunts. Wanting a more “official” foray into the art world, she enrolled at the Memphis College of Art. While earning her BFA in Ceramics (and Art History), she focused on textile work. Inspired by what she deemed as architect and designer Maya Lin’s mindful approach to art, Chambers further articulates the ecological and environmental nature of what she does. Not only is Dail’s work highly sustainable, she counts her efforts at planting trees and passing horticultural knowledge through the gardening and herbalist courses she teaches as part of her art. That urge to meld with the land, she said, is indigenous and African; the awareness of how to engage with the land respectfully represents yet another inheritance from her aunties.

"Comfort Blanket," mixed media fiber by Dail Chambers.

Perhaps in honor of them, Chambers uses her fine art installations to underscore the artistic thesis that how we treat landscape and land is how we treat black women. As exemplified in one of her pieces, “Carry My Load of Black Scab Tears” was a nine-foot burlap cotton sack filled with cotton and covered with black ceramic scab tears. Dail made note that the sack didn’t droop or drag behind, as the sacks did in pictures of enslaved people, concluding that the magnitude of a nine-foot high sack standing tall and stiff with cotton was a far more accurate representation of their labor totem. Due to these brutal histories, these convoluted migrations, black bodies are always political and can never not be so. She explained:

The black body and the earth were already here and we are putting concrete on top of everything and picking apart things to politicize. As the earth is more completely commodified for human consumption, so is the black body—
even up to black death.

"Power Object," mixed media fiber by Dail Chambers.

Dail Chambers, the Quilter

Somewhat set apart from her fine art trajectory, Chambers’ quilting history is family history. Her great-grandmother, Rosie Greer, made quilts because she had to; composed of scraps and pieced together with love, the quilts would be given to family members. Born in Polk County, Rosie moved to Sunflower and later to Coahoma County with her husband, John “Book” Henry. Rosie’s daughters, Mary, Rodessa, and Druscilla were instrumental in Dail’s development as a quilter. She credits her great aunts with instilling in her the family tradition of sewing and quilting. Each of her aunts lived in different cities, Mary in St. Louis, Rodessa in Chicago and Druscilla in Clarksdale, Mississippi, so Dail spent her childhood visiting them and soaking up family stories around quilting spaces. The way she learned to quilt was in the manner folk art is authentically conveyed—through the quiet, reverent observation of elders. “Mary, Rodessa, and Druscilla are the three aunts who taught me how to quilt,” says Dail. “The number one way I learned was by sitting next to them when I was little, even before I was old enough to sew.” Often a community-based activity, the art of quilting meant the art of connections. It meant adult conversations and the juicy part of the family history. It meant understanding that sometimes the art itself is secondary to the process; her first quilt was two decades in the making.

A close up of one of Dail’s favorite quilts made by her great-grandmother, Rosie Greer. This quilt is over 60 years old.

Dail’s teachers could be demanding and sometimes critical, and as quilt sellers, they valued craftsmanship. After Dail completed the quilt top for her first quilt, her aunts and their friends laughed at it. They likened it to the “Anything quilts” her great-grandmother, Rosie, made—where she would piece anything together to make it work. Because Dail had painstakingly mapped her quilt using Rosie’s quilts as a pattern, she considered the moniker a badge of honor. She, in fact, still makes her quilts in this manner, sewing by hand and measuring and replicating Rosie’s work like DNA. In fact, that is why she takes the long way around—through the process she has access to both the essence and intentions of her ancestors and their craftwork.

The way she learned to quilt was in the manner folk art is authentically conveyed--through the quiet, reverent observation of elders.

Despite the tough but loving assessments of her aunties, Dail’s desire to keep the family tradition of quilting going is a source of pride for them. “They were tickled that I wanted to keep it going,” says Dail. The revelatory nature of the experience could not be overstated—it was the completion of her first quilt when she was in her late 20s that she realized her work could be firmly ensconced in the ways of her family, while also being reflective of the stories she wanted to tell. For that reason, she could fashion her quilts however she saw fit. Her work became the merging of two family traditions—the fine arts of her father’s side and the traditional arts of her mother’s people.

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

Dail was in St. Louis when Michael Brown was executed by the police. Her gallery was right in the middle of the protests. Dail was also serving as caregiver for her great aunt Mary in St. Louis and was shuttling her back and forth between appointments, errands, and barricades. “This is just like down south, we already did this,” she could remember Mary saying about the protests.

Dail’s “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” quilt that she made in response to the killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising.

It was during this time that Dail made a deep commitment to capture the turmoil of the Ferguson uprising through quilting, which resulted in the creation of her quilt, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”. 1 “It was the first time I made a quilt as a political response,” says Dail. “It was new for me to exhibit political quilts and take them outside of my family environment.” She continues, “The chaos of activism and police presence had become a regular part of our residential environment. The resistance that took place, grew beyond the streets of Ferguson. Visitors and citizens had break-out sessions, workshops and discussions about what a responsible movement could look like. As an artist, it was not the time to sit behind gallery walls and be silent. As an artist, I felt it was important to create in response to the current civil rights issue of the moment.”

The creation of “Hands Up” began with cross-cultural and intergenerational fabric choices. The African prints and fabric of the flowers were from her aunt Rodessa, who had been integrating these fabrics in her work since the 1980s. Dail had to go out and find the American flag in the background of the peice, but it was necessary to illustrate that the terror portrayed was uniquely American. She also notes that the American Flag is itself a quilt and incorporating the flag adds to the collage-style of “Hands Up” which pulls from different cultural references, materials and quilting tradition.

In the foreground, there is a woman with her hands up; she is made of burlap to express the African body as a commodity. The choice of burlap in this quilt also serves as a commentary on the consumerism of goods that come from the motherland such as coffee, which are often transported in burlap sacks. Here, Dail notes that migration (of people and materials) is an overarching theme in this piece. The woman in the center of the quilt is flanked by her children, blank, abstract, terrified. She represents the mother as the source of life, and the scene conveyed is an attack on motherhood. Dail says that being a mother is the “center of everything I do in my life.” She elaborates, “When you attack anybody, you attack the mother.” Her intention with this quilt is to consider “all of the mothers and children who protest in a movement or in their daily life.” “During the Ferguson Uprising,” she says, “there were seas of black women and children mourning and protesting the killing of Mike Brown, Jr. I wanted to depict the presence of women and children who are fighting for equal rights.”

"As an artist, it was not the time to sit behind gallery walls and be silent. As an artist, I felt it was important to create in response to the current civil rights issue of the moment.”

Sewn by hand, of course, the family is framed by quilt blocks of varying texture, size, and orientation, which give the impression of constant movement, much like an inescapable sea current. This may have also been a result of the fact that Dail worked on the quilt everywhere—while taking care of Mary and with her aunts in St. Louis, Chicago and Mississippi, who helped her turn a quilt top into a quilt. She also worked on the quilt during her residency at the Tougaloo Art Colony in Jackson, MS where she workshopped the piece with other visual artists, who were all doing similar layering in their work. In “Hands Up”, she lays family history smack dab on American history, indicating its culpability, and the result is an anything quilt that is also everything. Like Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston before her, Dail made sure to do her own genealogical and ethnographic research and integrate it into her artwork—blending art and anthropology. This part of the process was paramount to Dail, who considers her quilting as a family archive of sorts. She stresses the importance of young artists to be their own archivists, especially for family histories who have been denied in the historical record.

Dail is determined never to skip the hard parts of her work, and the recent loss of her aunt Mary makes this so much more significant to her. The journeys her ancestors took, forced and otherwise, speak to Dail’s life as well. She lives a largely nomadic life between the Midwest and Clarksdale, choosing where she’ll be depending on the weather, the inspiration, the needs of her family, or to dwell in places to facilitate her art and present the opportunity to show it. She works to be the change she wants to see, and an upcoming project will allow her to perform arts-based community development in the Delta. In the future, she hopes Mississippi can be a point where all her journeys come to rest.

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  1. ^ The title of the quilt refers to a common chant used during the protests in Ferguson after the killing of Mike Brown.

Dail Chambers, Addie Citchens, and Maria Zeringue

Dail Chambers, Addie Citchens, and Maria Zeringue

Dail Chambers (pictured) is a multidisciplinary artist residing part time in Mississippi. She is the sixth generation in her family to migrate along the Mississippi river. She has a life practice of ethnographic inquiry and response to migration, genealogy and women’s issues.

Addie Citchens is a fiction writer from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her work centers on themes of blackness, and the performance thereof, the blues, and personal liberation. She has been featured in The Oxford American, Callaloo, The New Engagement, Columbia Journal, and others.

A native of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Maria Zeringue moved south from Bloomington, Indiana, to serve as MAC’s Folk and Traditional Arts Program Director. She has master’s degrees in French and Folklore from the University of Louisiana Lafayette and Indiana University, respectively, and a bachelor’s degree in French from University of Louisiana Lafayette. Maria previously served as research and curatorial assistant at Traditional Arts Indiana. She also served as an associate instructor of folklore at Indiana University. Maria has published articles in Journal of Folklore Research Reviews and Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.