Saturday, March 22, 2008

Flagging, Quilting, Coding, Fun!

In the grand fashion of my habitual procrastination, I have been letting a project simmer in the nether regions of my brain for the past couple of months.  Ok, that might not be a completely accurate description of this project: having successfully roped Nellie into collaborating on it, we've been sort of working on it to varying degrees since about september of last year with the intentions of submitting it for Rachel Faller's Blanket Statements show this spring.  I was supposed to submit a description of the piece along with hanging instructions, etc., on the 10th of March... which should have been totally easy since we had been working on it for so long, right??!?  Apparently wrong.  I still haven't sent anything to Rachel.  (But hopefully, since she's a friend and has been listening to Nell and I ramble about it intermittently for months, she'll let us in the show anyway.  Eh, Rachel?  Please??)  Anyway... seeing the date, I started trying to fumble out a short description of the piece and again, quite characteristically, found myself completely incapable of writing less than 3 pages.    So instead of starting with a blurb... here's the whole low-down... and hopefully I'll be able to pull something out of this for the show.

Over the past few months I have been reading a book called "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad."   The book unveils intricate codes that were sewn into quilts by slaves.  Different patterns would communicate a different message such as what to bring, when to leave, even specific directions in which to travel and the locations of safe-houses. 
(This is a sample quilt that shows a number of the patterns used in the quilts.)

The story is fascinating and as I was reading an undeniable comparison between the codes used by the Underground Railroad and those used by historically closeted Gays and Lesbians began to cement itself in my mind.  Although the experiences of the slaves are by no means the same as those of a hidden queer community, the similarities are startling.  For example, fabric based codes were used for silent communication in both cultures.  Slaves used recycled fabric, often their discarded clothing, to create the quilts mentioned above.  When the appropriate time came, these quilts would be hung on a fence, window sill or clothes line to "air out" signaling to knowing eyes an intentional message.  Similarly, gay men historically (and more recently gay women and gender queer individuals) utilized a nuanced "hanky code" to indicate both sexual preference and intimate details of sexual taste.  

(Literally the only decent photo I could find for flagging.  Apparently this guy wants it all but doesn't know that there's actually a single hanky for wanting it all.  Orange, duh.) 

We propose to make a quilt that combines the quilt code used by the Underground Railroad and the Hanky Code used by the queer community in an attempt to jumpstart a conversation between two minorities that have both endured oppression and been forced to use alternative methods of communication.  By combining the information contained in the colors of the hankies and the structural patterns of the quilt blocks We propose to build a sort of personal ad- sampler for hypothetical queer individuals.

(Maybe this is where the rainbow stereotype comes from?  And each color represents a different sexual taste!  The rainbow has never been sexier.)

Ok, I would be lying if I didn't say that some of the impetus for this piece stems from an experience I had last summer while assisting an anti-racism training session at a quaker summer camp.  During the session I was frustrated by the amount of comparison and judgement that was present between minorities.  The people who identified themselves as a racial minority and therefore identified with a history of American racial oppression were startlingly hesitant to discuss instances of queer oppression.  Throughout the exercises and conversations I consistently used my own experiences as a queer woman (and the knowledge I have of the queer historical struggle) as a tool for understanding the racial issues at hand.  As the session in question was designed specifically to battle racism however, voicing this comparison was met with a certain amount of contempt.  This impass is apparently not unusual and on many levels understandable, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating and it's commonness didn't leave me feeling any less marginalized.  I am not attempting any sort of grand reconciliation with this quilt; it is only a small gesture of recontextualization that expresses my own reactions to learning about the history of the Underground Railroad quilts.  Hopefully, when finished, the piece will contain as much humor and fun as I've had while working on it.

Whew!  Ok, so that was really long.  Now all I have to do is make it!  Wish me luck!


trautfish said...

hey nora we should fashion custom orange hankies. seriously! and yeah let's hang so I can help you decorate your blog all fun-like!

katiwithanilovesyou said...

This is really really interesting to me. I never knew about flagging. One day I'm going to be in the city and make you take a secret lunch break with me!

Nelly Face said...

You have such a head for knowing!

kate said...

oh my god! i love you nora. i want to see that!

eileen said...

so after reading your blog i had to google "hanky code." how did i not know? so expressive. so dirty.

so my question is, can i go out and by a bunch of bandanas and start wearing them to be ironic? or will i just end up fisting some twinky latino bottom because i thought red looked good with brown and a white stripe?

p.s. love the quilt idea. show me how it turns out.