Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk—that is the name of fiber artist Xenobia Bailey’s ongoing cultural art project. It’s colorful, challenging, multi-disciplinary, and incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to categorize. Bailey’s primary media are yarn and fabric and most of her pieces are crochet or knitted. She often uses concentric circles or repeating pattern motifs and her work takes many forms: hats, costumes, quilts, giant mandalas, and even freestanding tents. Her art is partly informed by the love and care that her mother and other working-class women put into making their homes inviting and special. “She [her mother] created a beautiful ambiance with nothing,” Bailey said in an interview with The Root. “She’d get these afghans and quilts from the Salvation Army to adorn the house in a way that was like an art installation.”
Born Sherilyn Bailey in Seattle, Washington, she changed her name to Xenobia in honor of an ancient warrior queen. She studied ethnomusicology—the global exploration of music in its anthropological context—at the University of Washington. This was her introduction to the sounds and cultures of world music and Asian philosophies. Bailey worked as a costume designer for Black Arts West, an acclaimed African American community theater until she was accepted at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1974. While earning her BA in industrial design, she learned to crochet under Italian Swiss artist Bernadette Sonona, whom Bailey described to The Root as “a brilliant needle artist” who taught her how nearly every skill she uses today in one lesson. Her signature stitch is referred to as “liquid stitch” – a flowy line that almost appears to be dripping. She has noted that the practice of crochet is meditative for her, like counting prayer beads.
As Bailey’s work and education advanced, she found increasing influence in African and Asian cultures, Eastern and Native American spiritual ideologies, African American rural and urban life, all underscored by a 1970s funk aesthetic. “Funk is the unending cycle of life,” she says. “It’s the ultimate concept—wherever your imagination will take it.” She has been quoted as saying that African American trauma resulted in funk. “But we can make a joyful noise in that funk, too. From that garbage comes fertilizer, and that’s where fresh seeds sprout.”
Her explorations with yarn led her to a career designing culturally explorative hats and sculptural headpieces inspired by African American patterns and traditional motifs and African American braided hairstyles. Her work appeared in Elle, Essence, and Interview magazines, in print advertisements for United Colors of Benetton, and on media like The Cosby Show and Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing. Bailey ultimately moved to different areas of exploration because she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a milliner. She wanted to promote cultural awareness on many levels and became, in effect, an activist.
Ms. Bailey admires the Bauhaus philosophy and wants everyday people to find ways to be revolutionary in everyday life. “Art has to be medicine,” she has said many times and wants her work to show everyday people that they can inspire themselves. “People don’t make up their own recipes anymore; people don’t experiment.” Her work is accessible but futuristic and spiritual, and undeniably DIY.
The next time you are in New York, visit the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 34th Street-Hudson Yards station. There you will find her first public art commission, Funktional Vibrations—a glass mosaic that reflects her textile art and is a tribute to the African American experience. Bailey has no intention of retiring anytime soon and continues to expand her reach and express her point of view in new and innovative ways.
Lead image courtesy of SMS Commons.