Moko Jumbies, the spirits that span life and death

The Dance of Life  pieced quilting and appliqué, sewn tulle 

Linking past and present, life and death reminded me of my earlier life in West Africa. At funerals the Dan tribe dance on stilts in great leaps endeavouring, they believe, to smooth the passage between this world and the spirit world.

In Trinidad, where my mother was born and grew up and where I once lived, the  Moko Jumbies are an incarnation of the Dan spirit people featured yearly in their carnival celebrations. Moko Jumbie stilt walkers also represent both the present and the spirit world, their long legs are said to enable them to form a bridge linking the two worlds.

 

My process of building the image for The Dance of Life was a trial and error jigsaw of hexagons. I decided that the hexagon provided the most scope for building imagery, which I then appliquéd onto the quilt along with fabric squares of maps and tulle spirit-like figures, suggesting the abstract presence of other generations.

 

The use of quilts by African slaves is well documented; they probably learned this skill to make quilts for their western owners of european descent. Quilts have come to symbolize a unique union of African and European traditions.

 

Using a mixture of floral and abstract fabric to build the Moko Jumbie figures, my aim is to signify inclusivity which I intended to achieve within the narrative of this work.

Constructing the figures

Finding the figures

Trinidad Moko Jumbies

Dan Spirit jumpers. Côte d'Ivoire

Moko Jumbies are based on folklore. The passing of stories down through the generations.

 

Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. Instead their family history was told through a series of tableaux images, used much like a family photograph album. These depicted stories such as their life in Africa, the indigenous animals found there and the capture and transportation of slaves bound in shackles.

 

Sewn into the designs are often found circular patterns and stars said to be charms. These images are placed in the quilt design, along with single figures said to be a Vudun, (Vudu/Voodoo) surrounded by charms to ward off evil spirits.

Traditional slave album quilt

Smithsonian National Collection of American History

First inspiration - Quilting in paint

Hard To Hold On To

The painting Hard To Hold On To combines suggestions of hexagons breaking into an image of a parent and child. Perhaps it is the figurative image I chose for this experiment, but I felt I was deviating from the initial message about life being pieced and threaded together. The quilt metaphor was becoming muddied because it was painted in a too realistic fashion.  I returned to my initial concept to try to use the quilt itself to tell the narrative, using the process of sewing and constructing with fabric, in the hope I might stumble through and progress in a more biomorphic direction.

The Slippage of  Time  oil on canvas and pieced quilting

The Slippage of Time was my first foray into working with quilts, to convey something other than a straight pattern. I divided a second-hand unpadded quilt in half and stretched the top half onto a wooden frame. The bottom half is the mirror image only, painted onto a canvas of equal size. Towards the bottom the painted image distorts, and drips of melting paint slide down and pucker on the canvas. These two equal images taking divergent paths, contrasting reality and fading memories, and is entitled The Slippage of Time

A sample of my first quilt and inspiration., sewn many years ago with my mother. 

I came across an unfinished quilt that my mother and I had once worked on together when we were whiling away the time between her daily radiotherapy treatments that she was undertaking in the 1980’s. Seeing it again rekindled intense memories and emotions from those days, and I wondered if this could be the conduit I had been searching for in my work to link the past and the present.

Painting the past and the present

Throughout last summer I had been experimenting with techniques using oil paint and working through my ideas. I followed each path, leading me from one piece of work to another. ​Finding old photographs and home movies of my family were my inspiration for these paintings.

 

And So the Story Fades (right), is the typical photo of people grouped all together which marked a day many years ago when my family, who lived all over the world, were together, a brief snapshot in time. Using the cropped heads and misty older figures my intention was to describe the passage of time and memory. The foreground figures of children are simultaneously apprehensive and defiant as they dangle their legs over the edge of a stone bridge while the paint drips into the unknown.

Evanesce

And So the Story Fades

And So the Story Fades

The Pied Piper

And So the Story Fades

Evanesce was concentrating on early external influences. In modern times these are increasingly focused on social media, often faceless, whereas historically children interacted face to face both with adults and their peers. It gave me the idea for my Crypt Gallery painting The Pied Piper. I am addressing the insidious use of computer games, usually on mobile phones, to babysit children and potentially rob them of their childhood.

Three-Legged Race

Forward, Backward

Three-Legged Race follows on from the painting Forward, Backward. Using images sourced from old home movies, I experimented with painting techniques, using blurry, choppy fragmented brushstokes to demonstrate the impermanence of childhood and the unknowing world we are yet to inhabit. At the bottom of the painting, as with Forward, Backward, I left part of the canvas exposed, but it needed more to portray the unknown world yet to unfold. I used the runny blur of the paint to suggest this. 

I first used the blurry painting technique in my painting Forward, Backward. A figure walking towards the future, but the image behind her is of a futuristic building designed by Buckminster Fuller for the Expo '67 show in Montreal. There is a monorail running towards the entrance, a passenger is looking forward but backward into the futuristic building he is about to enter. The hope for a new world as seen from the 1960's.