Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore
On view through March 31
Avery Research Center
125 Bull St.
Cookie Washington has imagined what life might be like as a water goddess, ruling the seas and the hearts of men. She describes her new quilt and doll exhibition at the Avery as her "baby," seven or eight years in the making.
Initially, it was hard to find a venue for her vision, and she didn't get support for the idea of fiber art inspired by black mermaids. But when she approached Georgette Mayo, Avery's interim head, she got a glowing reception. Once Washington explained that the first mer-stories were brought over here by African slaves, Mayo knew the Avery had to host the show.
Aided by Catherine Lamkin, Washington published a call for entries in two national magazines. The specs: fiber art featuring black mermaids. Work flooded in from New York, Illinois, California, and other far-flung states.
Washington is constantly astounded that blacks don't know their heritage.
"African-American women don't honor ourselves enough," she says. "I don't mean we should have beauty pageants every day, but we haven't seen ourselves in art, history, or painting." When she came across stories of black mermaids she thought, "These trace back to black goddesses. People worshiped them. They were strong. They could cause storms and bring fertility. They could be benevolent and bless your fishing harvest. I wanted little girls to see these amazing spirit beings."
Proving there's more to mermaids than Disney's Ariel, Mermaids and Merwomen manages to get its cultural point across and celebrate black womanhood at the same time. Stepping into the Avery is like visiting an under-the-sea-themed party, without the balloons and bad dancing. The show has a tranquil element thanks to all the blues and dark greens in the quilts. But a sea of sparkling shells, sequins, and frills suggest a fiesta bubbling under that calm surface.
Adding to the party atmosphere are pieces like Zelda Grant's toddler-sized doll "Whitney the River Songstress," which wears a carnival mask. The Caribbean colors of Antonia S. Torres' "Water Queen" help, too. Despite the quilt's overly busy background, the Queen still stands out with a tail like an ornate bird's.
Torres isn't the only artist who plays up the mermaid's decorative aspects. Some of these fishlike femmes seem positively desperate to attract a mate — or some hapless sailor. Pat Neese's doll, "Come See My Treasures," has a splendid peacock tail replete with eye-like scales. Fairest of them all is "Hot Fuchsia Lady," a brightly garbed art doll by Martha Ann Dudley. With her pink hair swirling as if underwater, this smiling doll goes for $2,000.
Despite the theme, artists have found plenty to say with their imaginative colors, materials, and symbols. Some of the most effective pieces are the simplest — both Shirley Bullock and Yvonne F. Anderson sew in a naïve style that will appeal to those little girls whom Washington refers to. Bullock's "An Ordinary Day" includes small purple octopi, red-speckled fish, and a mermaid with a sparkling red and gold tail; Anderson's "Mermaid Sistah" squeezes in a lighthouse, a firework-shaped mergirl, and a night sky of stars and planets. With quilt-making like this, the show should be a hit while inspiring women to revisit their history and dip their toes in new creative waters.