What is the body capable of expressing in silhouette? Diedrick Brackens highlights this question in a video about “Ark of Bulrushes,” his exhibition of sculptures, photographs, and textiles currently on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Titled after the floating basket that took the infant Moses up the Nile River to safety, the exhibition asks what psychic toll extreme secrecy takes in the midst of an uncertain passage, and how mind and body alike might heal from such duress.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses cites his ineloquence to excuse himself from standing up to the Pharaoh and demanding freedom for the Israelites. He could speak to God, but he felt he couldn’t speak to the Israelites, whose burdens were foreign to him: unlike them, he had never been enslaved. As a compromise, God made a spokesperson of his brother, Aaron, who had known life as a slave. Speech was also a fraught currency for the enslaved children and grandchildren of the kidnapped Africans who were forced to build the United States of America. Some oral traditions spoke of a cautionary language, compressed into symbols, found on freedom quilts hung strategically in windows to aid fugitives on the Underground Railroad.
While academics have dismissed both the tale of Moses and the freedom quilts’ codes as myths, the stories are intertwined with cultural narratives (Harriet Tubman was nicknamed Mother Moses by journalist and fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison for the profound secrecy of her missions guiding people along the Underground Railroad), making them ripe for extensions—and for Brackens, a Texas-born, Los Angeles–based artist, myth is a vital foundation for art. Earlier in that video, Brackens sat near his loom and narrated the powerful utility of such quilts—how each design would have secretly gestured to where a fugitive might find shelter or conveyed what resources to prepare before embarking on the journey.
The fruit of Brackens’s work at the loom—which he sees as a tool for meditative invention—is a series of textiles that responds to the aforementioned histories by elaborating on the quilts’ directives to explore how to silently communicate being safe in one’s own body. In the tapestry survival is a shrine, not the small space near the limit of life (2021), for example, Brackens portrays a silhouetted body squatting with arms raised wide in a V formation, palms facing out. Poised on the balls of the feet, the figure seems ready to launch from the confining space of the piece’s center, delineated by the surrounding black isosceles triangles. Those shapes point in a multitude of directions, suggesting several paths to safety, even if pursuing such movement could bring the figure into the sightlines of surveillance. One answer to Brackens’s question about the expressive potential of the silhouette: the anonymous figures, woven into encoded compositions, serve as signs of protection in the face of the dangers and frustrations that Black people have continued to endure, from the historical moment of the freedom quilts through the present.
Brackens’s exploration of how to convey bodily safety continues in his sculptures. Engaging in basket-weaving for the first time, he imagined a container that could bring his body into a positive relationship to the land, from which Black people have long been dispossessed. The resulting large vessels, woven from reeds, include ark (cross), 2021, a cross-shaped houndstooth-patterned basket, and ark (indigo), 2021, resembling a barrel dipped in indigo. Both appear in a series of photographs Brackens shot at Big Tujunga Creek, which runs through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County. This body of work anchors the myth of liberation in an embodied experience: Brackens depicts himself carrying the hollow cross and then floating in the water while nestled in the womblike basket, as if receiving the new life that baptism promises, quietly beseeching the water to bless his rebirth.