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Episode #76: Touching Roots: Karen Hampton

On October 21st, we released the third segment in our seven part interview series, Touching Roots, centered around an exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, titled Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas.

This episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with award winning artist, American Craft Council Fellow, and textile history researcher, Karen Hampton.

Karen has a textile weaving on view in Touching Roots. The piece is titled "Memories" [pictured left], and it is a strip-woven, double-weave dyed cotton piece (35.5"x30.5"), made in 1990.

It was a pleasure to speak to Karen and dive deeply into her work as a weaver and textile collage artist.

However, during this episode, we also spoke at length about Karen's work as a researcher, focusing on the role of enslaved African-American women in the development of the history of American textile work. There was an article mentioned during the episode that Karen was kind enough to provide us with the source to, and we are providing it here as a resource for our listeners to continue their research and learning.

Karen Hampton, Textile Society in America Symposium Proceedings, 2000

Article Abstract:

Two hundred years ago the American landscape included African American women and children toiling in the indigo and cotton fields. Indigo stains covered their arms, and the fermenting stench followed them around the landscape. During this time weaving mills began to appear on plantations and these same women were trained in the craft of weaving. Today that history is all but lost.

Certainly, these African American women weavers succeeded in dressing their mistresses; however, their most important impact on the American economic scene was to complete their masters' plan to create a self-sustaining slave based economy. Not only was slave labor valued for profit and prestige, it provided the planters with a chance to create a self-sustaining farm. The plan was that the costs and expenses of slavery would be absorbed by the labor of the slaves themselves. It was this philosophy that led to the creation of a slave-based textile industry and the creation of the female Negro textile artisan.

In the low country of North and South Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia, African American women played a very important role in the development of textile production prior to the industrial revolution. Beginning with the development of indigo production in the mid-1700s and expanding to cotton, African American women began working in what was to become the early textile economy. They worked the cotton and indigo fields, then toiled over the stench of the indigo vats. Thereafter, these women became the spinners, weavers and dyers of the plantation south, and the actual originators of a robust textile economy.

You can also view much more of Karen's portfolio online at her website here, including other works discussed during this episode, along with much more.

[Photo from this article - pictured above, Karen Hampton with photo collage works.]

Below is a description from the Touching Roots landing page on the MFA Boston website. "Africa is at once a point of origin and a myriad of associations—real and imagined—for many Black artists working in the Americas. In the 20th century, some artists self-consciously responded to writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke’s call to engage with “those ancestral arts.” Others continued to practice African artistic traditions passed down through generations. This exhibition traces narratives of Blackness across the Atlantic world by bringing together work from artists who absorbed and reinterpreted African artistic practices, sacred customs, and cultural expressions. The artworks honor ancestral spirits and Black legacies through painting, sculpture, textiles, and dance. Artists from throughout the Americas are represented—with a special focus on those from or working in New England, like Allan Rohan Crite, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Ifé Franklin, Bryan McFarlane, Karen Hampton, and Stephen Hamilton. Highlights from the collection include Ubi Girl from Tai Region (1972) by Loïs Mailou Jones, African Woman (about 1933) by James Richmond Barthé, Untitled (1943) by Wifredo Lam, and George Jackson (1971) by Kofi Bailey. Visitors can explore how shared cultural heritages created connections that formed the basis of communities, highlighting the importance of Africa’s presence in the Americas. By turning their gaze inward and toward Africa, Black artists grounded their artistic expressions and infused strength and insight into their work.

This exhibition accompanies “Stories Artists Tell: Art of the Americas, the 20th Century,” a suite of galleries spanning place and time, and exploring different themes surrounding 20th-century art from the Americas." This exhibition is included in General Admission. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has a range of discounts for General Admission tickets, including discounted admission passes you can reserve in advance through your local library. Check out the ticketing page at here for more information.

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