We recently had the opportunity to connect with Christine Miller, conceptual artist and curator based in Portland, OR. In conversation with Stephanie Sun, Christine discussed her recent show at Disjecta PDX, dismantling traditions, working with and expanding upon flag iconography, and the importance of prioritizing self-care.
S: Hi, I’m so happy to chat with you again! I’ve been looking forward to this – actually I have plans to go see your show at Disjecta this weekend.
C: Oh fun, that’s exciting. Yeah, I’m so happy hearing people say they’re going and the great feedback and stuff like that. Thank you for checking it out.
S: To start off, I’m curious what the phrase “New Traditions,” and the ideas of ‘traditions’ or ‘traditional’ mean to you?
C: I was chatting with my friend about this recently – she’s from a Caribbean background – and she was saying how she was talking to her family about certain things that they did, certain traditions. And she was saying ‘well, we need to look at these traditions differently because how did some of these traditions start?’ And a lot of traditions, especially in certain cultures, started with colonization and either taking certain things, ideologies from European backgrounds, or just certain things that were traditionally acceptable or that were done but rooted in something else. So when I think of a tradition, I think it’s related to systems in a sense, and the way things just ‘are’.
It’s even something about jobs – statements like “ traditionally we hire someone who is from this race, or this background or traditionally we need an artist cover letter or X, Y, and Z for whatever opportunity.” So I think new traditions are really questioning why certain traditions are there in the first place. I’m not saying that all traditions are bad, there are certain ones I do like and I think are rooted in something nice.
But I think creating new traditions is about seeing why you do certain traditions in the first place, and if they really do resonate with who a person is and, if not, then breaking traditions and doing something different.
S: It sounds like you’re thinking about new traditions as a way of reconsidering, not just accepting the way things are done because that’s how they’ve always been done.
C: Yeah that’s right. Even people are saying ‘dismantle and abolish the police’. You know, it’s the police system that was rooted in catching runaway slaves. And seeing how that system and that tradition was rooted in slavery and how it still has a lot of values that were rooted in what it was created for. Talking about dismantling certain traditions and certain systems, when you think of it in terms of reform, it’s just really putting a Band-Aid on certain things. But creating the traditions and creating these systems is breaking down old ones and building new ones. A new foundation.
S: That makes a lot of sense. You brought up the example of police reform and that’s something that’s ever-present and really ties into a lot of the recent challenges that we’ve been facing as a society.
I think many people are seeing these opportunities for rethinking how things have ‘always been’. I’m curious how you think about traditions, cultural traditions or societal traditions or craft traditions, in your own creative process and in the work that you make.
C: So before everything happened, a lot of my words dealt with Jim Crow memorabilia. It was propaganda that was created to make black people look less than human, another tool of dehumanizing them and perpetuating this narrative that ‘black people are lazy’ or ‘black people are X, Y, Z,’ and it was just all made-up bullshit. They made these grotesque characters and it’s about white supremacy, which at its core believes whiteness is supreme and everything about it – from beauty standards to smartness to everything – is thinking that white people, because of their skin, were supreme over anyone else.
I would use a lot of that imagery to bring it to light. I think a lot of people sometimes have this idea of ‘Obama is president, racism is over…’ but a lot of these things still exist. And it’s not like this imagery or things like that went away. The physical thing never went away. And then also certain things within it never went away in people’s minds. So hearing people say ‘darker skinned people shouldn’t wear lipstick’ or even the whole thing with Gucci and Prada doing this big lips character and stuff like that – that still is rooted in traditional imagery of what blackness looks like. And a lot of that white supremacy especially shows itself in colorism.
Even though colorism is specific among a specific group of people, you still see how the effects of that mindset, of that tradition, plague people’s lives. So I wanted to bring that to light.
With the flag project, I kind of changed it. I had been thinking about it for a while and when I was asked to be part of the show, the curator and I were talking about using some of that old imagery and I was like, ‘honestly, I do not have the mental space for and I just need to do something else.’ A lot of work I do is a response to the times and things that I’m processing. With all the Trump people that came to town and being plagued by seeing that flag over and over and over and over again, I wanted to do a personal project, specifically with the Pan African flag, and do research on the history of Black Nationalism and Black Liberation and look at what that mind frame was about.
I turned 30 last year and I wanted to make 30 flags. And I’m going to continue. But having this relationship with this flag that was created in 1920, going back to the roots of what this flag was created for – it was really a symbol and an iconography of Black freedom and Black Liberation from this country. There was something about making it by hand that I really wanted to do and use different tactile materials. I have a background in apparel and I really wanted to not use the traditional flag materials – which I realize now are used for a reason; using this thin nylon and polyester and with polyester, the ink goes through the material, and then you’re able to hang it horizontally and vertically. Huge shoutout to Brittany Vega, she helped me a lot with research for flag making.
I just wanted to break the rules and do something that felt unique to me and make my own story of what Black Nationalism and Black Liberation and Black culture was. I was breaking tradition by using a different material. It made me really think about the American flag. The American flag is so revered, but it wasn’t created at a time period for me or my ancestors, to represent our freedom. I did more digging about a woman named Grace Windsor, who was an indentured servant to Betsy Ross and Betsy Ross’s white friend. She was a slave woman who helped create the American Flag, sewing it by hand and doing a lot of the work, and people don’t know her name. I was thinking about them as I created these Pan African Black Liberation flags.
S: That’s a great explanation, thank you. I’m curious if the word ‘subversion’ fits into how you’re thinking about using flags as a medium. Flags are anthems in a sense – the one that comes to mind right now is the Confederate flag that we’re seeing all these different groups using and advocating with, in the Capitol, etc.. And I’m wondering if there’s something in your work about subverting what flags are being used to speak for right now or a reclaiming of narrative?
C: I think it’s more of a polysemic view than subversion. Especially with the American flag, when President Obama got in office and people were waving the flag, then seeing it when the Civil Rights movement happened and they were marching with the American flag and, at the same time, the Klan was using the American flag, too. And then there was a picture of a white man trying to stab a Black protester with an American flag and then these pickup trucks coming in for rallies have like eighty American flags but they’re Trump flags. I think it’s just separating from that flag completely.
This project really was a self-care project – by separating from that flag completely and using the Black Liberation flag as my basis – that is my new red, white and blue. I stopped wearing red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July for a while, I always wear all black or something else. But having this newfound identity…I mean, the identity was always there, but having a personal symbol, that’s more so what this work was.
S: When you describe your most recent project as a self-care project, that makes me even more interested in the material processes of your practice. Self-care is something that is so important, especially in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of all of this unrest, to make the space for working on something that really speaks to your emotional and mental health.
C: Yeah, a hundred percent. The material aspect was really important. At first, I wanted to make these gigantic flags from different materials. I was thinking about these gigantic Trump flags that I kept seeing and the feeling I’d get in the pit of my stomach. And then when I made the gigantic flag, I was just so underwhelmed. I made a huge denim one and a huge felt one, and I was about to make a huge leather one. And then I was like, ‘this doesn’t look good’. When I first started it, I felt like my energy was really just saying a big ‘F*** you’ to these Trump flags, just trying to match their energy. But when I started making them smaller, swatch-like, that’s when the relationship really started to unfold and felt like I was making my own stories. Sometimes the material came first, sometimes the story came first. It was generally a lot of questioning: ‘What do I like, what am I interested in? What do I want to see mixed together? What do you normally not see traditionally mixed together? Well, what is the story like afterward?’
S: I wonder, with your recent work with these flags, and your continuing work in the direction that you’re going now, do you think that the way in which you’re working through those ideas and approaching materiality is something that you want to be continuing forward? Do you see that changing or evolving in any way?
C: Not for now. I just generally loved doing a project and it was a lot of fun. I want to challenge myself to do something for a while before switching it up, so, yeah, I’m going to keep going with it for a while.
Also with this element of crafts, I just really want to do something fun. I think when people hear words like ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Liberation’ and ‘Black Nationalism’, they get so scared. And yeah it’s a serious topic because we shouldn’t have been enslaved or prejudiced against to begin with, but it’s generally about Black people unifying themselves, having control of things that involve their own people – and truly progressing. The Black Panther Party started with the original name of the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense. Black Power is a term of defense drawn from being in so many situations and spaces in America where every single piece of power was taken away.
Using the different materials is breaking away from the tradition of what a flag always was. I tried to use traditional elements like the grommet and the header, I definitely wanted to add that. The materials were to tell stories of Blackness and also comment on how we’re not a monolith – Black Liberation and Black Freedom look different for everyone. I also wanted to comment on how people try to mass-produce Black culture so much. There were a number of different layers for why these materials came in.
S: Hearing you talk about the decision making in the craft process of producing the flags, it sounds like you found a balance between working with the traditions and histories of flag making and then breaking away to help the work communicate the concepts and ideas that you were interested in talking about.
C: Yes, exactly.
S: So thinking about the textile community as a whole, extrapolating beyond your most recent work with learning about flags and how flags are produced, how do you think tradition fits into the textile community or the textile industry?
C: There’s this incredible artist, her name is Bisa Butler, who makes these decorative quilts using African materials. They’re bright and they’re vibrant. It’s a new way of life portraiture and it’s just gorgeous, I can’t even explain it. Her work might not have been looked upon as the traditional quilt, and, again, that’s what White supremacy is – if you look up quilts on Google, actually, I kind of want to do it now… the first few pictures that pop up are little old white ladies and, you know, going to JoAnne’s and all this other stuff.
But, you know, women who were enslaved would make freedom quilts and show ways to freedom. There were and are Black quiltmakers. The woman who I just mentioned, Butler, is a quilter herself – she might not seem like a traditional quilter, but she is and she’s killing it. And her stuff is incredible. It’s about Black people telling their own stories and those stories being on the forefront and as coveted as much as anyone else’s. Being seen and using different material. I love Sonya Clarke’s work. She’s been using a lot of materials and making flags and all this other stuff for a while.
S: I read an article from last year in The New York Times, ‘The Radical Quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins’. It was about this African-American quilter, Effie Mae Martin Howard, and this man who discovered her work and then ended up having this huge collection of all of her pieces, which he bequeathed to the Berkeley Art Museum. It reminds me of what you’re talking about right now, with these legacies of really prolific quilters who in their time were not given the attention or respect or appreciation for their work. They were overlooked because they were African-American or their quilts didn’t fit into traditional quilting styles, and then you’ve got the bias of quilting, in general, being a ‘craft’ and not necessarily a ‘high art’.
C: Yes, right. It’s like what is ‘high art’? Even thinking about the term ‘high art’ – are textiles and material art traditionally thought about as ‘high art’? I had that conversation with my friend when I saw my pieces up with all those materials. I had a moment when I was like, ‘does this belong in here?’ And she said that if you believe it does, it should. The curator, Lucy Cotter, was incredible to work with, she believes in the work enough to bring it in there, too. So, you know, I’m still fighting certain things and still trying to work through feelings like imposter syndrome or, ‘does this belong in X, Y and Z’? But it does.
Who gets to decide what traditionally is ‘high art’? And who belongs in it most importantly?
S: Exactly. Maybe we can end by talking about if there are any new traditions, new practices, that you’ve learned or incorporated into your life or into your work that you’d want to share with others?
C: The self-care piece. I was thinking about doing it a long time ago, and, you know, I could’ve easily continued with this work that I’ve been doing – I just had a friend pass me all these Klan KKK documents that I still haven’t even touched because I don’t have the bandwidth for it right now. But when she first asked me to be part of the show, I was like ‘I’m going to do this, ‘I’m going to do that,’ ‘I’m going to look into those documents…’ And then I thought, wait a minute, I can’t, I can barely even move right now.
It comes down to this: really doing things from a place within and sticking to that and putting your heart and where you are at center, versus what impact you think there might be. I feel like that is really important – I know that might not be the traditional answer, but I never thought I would have gotten the responses and just the amount of love and feedback that I’ve got from this project. I really did it for myself.
S: That’s a powerful message to be sharing, not only in the context of this past year that we’ve all had and the many different ways in which we’re all suffering but also in the general conversation about what it means to be an artist, too, about living that constant grind and having productivity be the way in which a lot of us are pushed to evaluate and judge our work. I think focusing on that self-care piece is a radical message.
C: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
Photos by Caleb Sayan