LOS ANGELES — Walking through Diedrick Brackens’s solo exhibition, heaven is a muddy riverbed, the phrase “ain’t I a man?” kept repeating in my head. It’s an adaptation of the famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech Sojourner Truth made at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention. Truth’s words were in defiance of the paltry perception of Black women in the United States, the deliberate denial of her femininity and overall personhood. In Brackens’s exhibition, the textile artist deftly combines his weavings with his original poetry to create an atmosphere of reverence for the people, animals, and ideas that society demeans. Like Truth’s words, Brackens’s works challenge visitors to the exhibition: When you encounter me, do you see all that I am? All that I do? All that I contain?
The exhibition focuses on the artist’s use of catfish as a motif. It begins with his reimagining of three Black men — Steven Booker, Carl Baker, and Anthony Freeman — who drowned in 1981 when a police boat capsized in Texas. Arrested during a Juneteenth celebration, they were in handcuffs when it went down and subsequently met their deaths in Lake Mexia — eternal rest in a muddied lakebed. Brackens grew up near that lake and often represents these men as catfish, an inexpensive bottom-feeder fish that is a staple in Southern cooking but otherwise has many negative connotations. But in Brackens’s textiles, these fish become regal, peaceful, spiritual, powerful, embodying the marvel that is any living being on Earth. He asks us to see all that the fish are, all that they do, all that they can contain.
All nine weavings in the exhibition include at least one fish, making the motif potent. Upon entering the gallery viewers are greeted with the exhibition’s eponymous work, whose three fish and body of water are an ode to the drowned men. The purple and blue hues that compose the water are woven in such a manner that it appears pixelated, an optical illusion that transforms yarn into ripples. One fish is shown mid-jump in a graceful arc; its two counterparts below repeat the same shape. The piece sets the exhibition’s tone. More than a mere portrayal, it is a meditation on catfish. They seem to swim through the gallery, swirl around the viewer. Occasionally they interact with silhouetted men, circling their feet or being raised in the air in exaltation. Each work could be a concurrent scene from a single moment on a river, or different points in the lives of the three fish as they navigate their own turbid waters.
Then there are the words. Four poems by Brackens provide surreal anchors throughout the show. Each adds dimension and depth to the concepts of life and sacrifice, the burden of the catfish as they carry the souls of the lost. “They won’t kick out into uncertain waters/ with the things we kept for ourselves,” reads part of “fathers guard the nursery.” Near the exit is a small shelf of books that inspired Brackens, their pages highlighted. The use of these poems and placement of the texts reinforces Brackens’s weaving skills, tying the exhibition together — yarns and threads as evident in the constitution of his work as in the conceptual presentation of it.
Standing in the center of the gallery, taking it all in, I think about the exhibition title. What does it mean for heaven to be a muddy riverbed? Murky but flowing. Earthen, not celestial. Nutritious and plentiful but not bright or clear. Mysterious and cloudy from the stir trailing activity. Driven more by belief in a presence beneath the surface than any visible proof. I’m encircled by woven pieces, making another type of net. I’m in the middle, caught along with the catfish swimming in every sightline. My own shadow occasionally blends with the silhouettes in the works. I recall the defiance in Truth’s phrase and I wonder, well, ain’t this a heaven?
heaven is a muddy riverbed is on view at Craft Contemporary (5814 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through May 8. The exhibition was organized by Holly Jerger.