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New textile show touches on African diaspora at SF gallery

May 27, 2023

Tillman’s choice of fabrics gives each subject a distinct character, accentuating their hair and nails with subtle beadwork and embroidery.

Quilting and embroidery have long been sidelined as domestic labor, or “women’s work,” at best appreciated as folk art. But these crafts are finding their way into the fine arts and a new exhibition at a Market Street gallery is a shining example.

Atlanta-based artist Adana Tillman‘s solo show, “I Am Everyday People,” at Jonathan Carver Moore, pushes the boundaries of textile art in a series of quilted portraits of Black people, alone and in groups, that are bursting with vibrant color and joy.

Using a variety of found and hand-dyed fabrics, Tillman touches on the diaspora of her subjects by portraying a social fabric stitched from the world over. It’s a unity that is reflected in many of her compositions.

In “The Block is Beautiful,” four young men huddle toward the center of the composition. Their tank tops and vests pop against the steely background in bright shades of orange, purple and blue. “Authenticity” portrays a group of four women against a mauve background, sitting and standing in relaxed postures, similarly adorned in geometric and tie-dye patterns.

The visual complexity in Tillman’s figures comes from the fabric patterns they’re made of — none of them possess facial features — but that doesn’t diminish their individuality. Instead, it puts special emphasis on how fashion and personal style are already major forms of identity.

Tillman’s choice of the fabrics she uses to portray her subjects — bright and patterned for the clothing, shades of black and brown for the skin — gives each a distinct character, while she accentuates their hair and nails with subtle beadwork and embroidery.

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Each tapestry pulses with as much exuberance as the song the exhibition shares a title with, a Sly and the Family Stone track about diversity and social acceptance. Tillman conveys this unity through the cohesion of her compositions, creating harmony in her arrangement of disparate patterns, whether she’s showing a group of people relating to one another or the individuals in her portraits relating directly to the viewer.

“Billie,” a portrait of Tillman’s grandmother, shows a woman sitting in an armchair made from a striped fabric accentuated with floral designs. In “Unwind,” a self-portrait, Tillman displays herself lounging in an armchair made from the same fabric as the one in “Billie,” a subtle nod to their familial relation and perhaps even the intergenerational knowledge of textiling. These pieces exude the comfort of a favorite blanket, of being swaddled in a loved one’s arms.

Other forms of intimate relationships are also on display.

“Slow Drag” features a couple dancing against a bright pink tie-dye background, their hips gyrating toward each other. The man’s hand rests on the woman’s hip, her arm and leg popping toward the viewer with explosive dimensionality. The composition is dramatic and the patterns rhythmic, undulating with a movement and desire you can almost feel.

But that could be said for the whole show — one doesn’t see this exhibition so much as feel it. That’s partly because fabric offers a physical association unusual in the visual arts. It’s also because of how masterfully Tillman elicits emotion through her medium, and that is the highest form of artmaking.