by David M. Roth
Two pieces that open Adia Millett’s current show – a wall filled with 10 yarn-wrapped spears and a multi-part weaving that feels akin to a tribal coat of arms – suggest an artist poised to do battle. Her battle, however, doesn’t concern any of the hot-button topics (race, gender, post-colonial legacies, etc.) consuming so much artworld attention these days. Rather, it’s about the roots of Black aesthetic expression, a subject the Oakland artist addresses by filling about a third of the ICA’s main exhibition space with four large-scale quilts borrowed from the Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), the world’s largest repository of such art.1 For Millett, quilt-making and craft form the bedrock of a practice in which she pays homage to those venerable traditions. Drawing on the age-old legacy of improvising with found materials, Millet, over the past 15 or so years, has developed a recursive library of geometric shapes, patterns and textures that form the basis of Wisdom Keepers, a powerful exhibition that spans painting, drawing, quilt-making, sculpture, installation and sound.
The artist, whose first name is pronounced awe-dee-ah, told me that seeing the work of the Gees Bend artists was a transformative experience. “It gave me a larger idea of how to break the rules. They were stepping outside traditional patterning. They weren’t using a lot of measuring; it was mostly improv. To me, this was symbolic of culture, of southern Black quilters creating this whole new language.”
While matters of aesthetics are often thought to be apolitical, the act of a Black artist making non-representational art during times of crisis has historically been viewed as anti-political, as when orthodoxies imposed by the Black Arts Movement during the Civil Rights era ultimately triggered a backlash against the notion that art should serve only political purposes. Millet’s work, like that of a wide range of contemporary artists (e.g., Nick Cave, Mike Henderson, Torkwase Dyson, Frank Bowling, Bethany Collins, Alteronce Gumby, Adam Pendleton, Tomashi Jackson), suggests we may be on the cusp of a similar kind of “bread-and-roses” moment when celebrations of beauty and cultural heritage are viewed less like heresy than as blows for freedom of expression.2
If the exhibition feels like a conjuration of ancestral spirits, that is by design. The feeling permeates the entire show, but it emanates with particular strength from a wood-panel painting called The Council, consisting of 15 faceless torsos made of boldly colored geometric shapes set against a navy blue ground, all situated at what looks to be a table. It spans 20 linear feet and stands opposite the aforementioned quilts. Despite its colors and crazy-quilt design, it casts — as the title suggests — a solemn, almost judicial aura, signaling Millett’s drive to forge a link between herself and those who’ve come before and, also perhaps, to measure her efforts against those of her elders. The imagery in that painting functions as a kind of modular template for most of what follows in an adjoining room.
At first glance, Millett’s compositional strategies, irrespective of media, echo those of any number of modernist painters: from Matisse and Hilma af Klint to Karl Benjamin and Agnes Pelton and the Transcendental Painting Group. Euro-centric though such comparisons may be, they point to the universal, culture-spanning character of abstraction, as well as to the premodern use of “sacred geometry” to evoke religious feelings. Nowhere do such feelings come across more strongly than in a wall covered with glass “shields,” each about the size of a skateboard, any one of which would have looked perfectly at home in a TPG exhibition, with spiritual-humanistic titles (e.g., Shield of the Physical; Shield of the Intellectual) to match. Each is built of shapes and colors similar to those seen in The Council, except in these, the visual impact is markedly different, owing to backlighting that brings to the fore their heraldic character. They glow like sun-struck panes of stained glass in a cathedral.
Nearby, four human-height sculptural “warriors” stationed in a circle and swathed in quilts (Millett’s), occupy the center of the room, looking less like battlefield combatants than penitents engaged in a silent, prayer-like ritual. They, too, cast a spell, heightened by faint whispers of a gospel-tinged soundtrack starring the
singer Yvonne Martin; together, they move us back in time to an era when quilt-making and other craft-based pursuits formed the basis of communities of Black women who, like those represented in the BAMPFA collection, have only in recent decades been recognized as groundbreaking artists.
Consigning so much space to their handiwork, while effective in pinpointing Millett’s sources, does have one drawback: we see less of Millett’s work than we’d see had she not been so generous. That said, what we do get — which includes one of her large-scale quilts, another major painting, and a suite of drawings — is more than sufficient. The quilt, titled Kinfolk, a mash-up of geometric and floral patterns and various textures, stands as a fine example of the uniquely African (and by extension African-American) penchant for wringing visual harmony out of what might otherwise be perceived as discord. Aura, a painted riot of leaf-like shapes backgrounding a cluster of concentric gray circles, suggests a nearby planet. Not Afrofuturism, exactly, but close.
In all of this, the important thing to recognize is that art-making in Millett’s scheme of things, isn’t so much an individual endeavor as it is a timeless, communal, generation-spanning affair. And so it is with Wisdom Keepers.
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Adia Millett: “Wisdom Keepers” @ Institute of Contemporary Art, San José through February 18, 2024.
- Quilts on view from the BAMPFA collection include those made by Flora Ates, Phoebe, Sherry Ann Byrd and Laverne H. Brackens.
- Bread and Roses is labor-movement slogan coined in 1911 by the suffragist Helen Todd to denote the need for fair pay as well as decent working conditions. Roses, however, has since come to mean all manner of life-enriching aesthetic and sensual experiences. See Rebecca Solnit’s “We Fight for Roses, Too” in her book of essays titled Orwell’s Roses. p. 85.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.