Lisa Woolfork 0:10
Hello stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax and get ready to get your stitch together.
Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And as I say every week, this is a very special episode, because this episode is a live episode at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Y'all, it is really amazing here. This is a beautiful space. I walked by a bathroom. It said "all gender restroom". And there was a sign beneath that said, "Don't make art in here." And I went to the women's room, and said the same thing, "No art making in here." The men's room didn't have it. And I'm sure that's because a man took the sign down. But I was like, "Wow, you got to tell people, don't make art in here because I guess you could walk in one day and all the toilets are filled with flowers, you know. And it's like, "I really had to pee, but I can't do it on all these really expensive orchids that someone decided to put in the toilet as art. So we're part of the Stitch By Stitch convening. And I'm talking with Alexandria Eregbu. And she is a fantastic and powerful creative, an artist, a teacher, a scholar, a writer, and just an all around badass. So I organized our conversation today around the three P's. And that's philosophy, projects and pedagogy. And I thought that would be a good comprehensive approach to learning more about Alexandria. And I'm also super excited to learn about terms of pedagogy, what it means to teach sewing and textiles at an art school. That is incredible to me. So welcome, welcome. I'm welcoming you to your own school. Welcome to your own school, Alexandria. I feel like a colonizer.
Thank you. Yeah, welcome. We are taking over. The takeover is real.
Lisa Woolfork 2:14
The takeover is real. And I am loving it. I am loving it. In terms of philosophy, social justice is a really important part of your work. Can you talk a little bit about how you embed that in your every day? How does artwork work as a form of empowerment for you?
Yeah, justice is definitely something that has become more and more central to my practice. Where that initially started with my work teaching and working with young people. So between the ages of about 14 and 19 years old, I started working with this program called Trace, which is a Chicago Park District run program. The acronym stands for Teens Reimagining Art, Community and Environment. So yeah, it has been really, really wonderful. That was my first big girl job out of college, you know, out of art school. It really opened my eyes to one, just the richness of the city. And within sort of the richness of the city still, the injustices that are just frequent here, the segregation for sure, and the disinvestment that was taking place in the neighborhoods in which I worked. And also it opened my eyes to, man, there's wonderful gifts that these young people, especially in the city of Chicago, carry, and are sharing with the rest of us. But there's also a lot of challenges that they face. And so my work initially started there thinking through leadership opportunities for young people to use their voice and allow their community to sort of see that, engage that on just a platform, you know, that put them front and center. I started with that, and worked my way through curatorial practice, actually, to organize myself amongst other artists to, again, continue to talk about just some of the challenges we face on a city level, but also on a national level as well.
Lisa Woolfork 4:11
I talked a few weeks ago with Madea Mohammed, and she has a slogan for her work, which is "Reach the world, but touch the neighborhood first." And that's kind of what I hear in some of the work that you're doing. This idea that you're essentially helping children recognize themselves as artist practitioners. And when we think about artists and practitioners, that helps to lead us to praxis, which was something that we talked about today. And whenever I hear the word praxis, though I've heard it a thousand times and I know what it means. Whenever I say the word practice, I instantly forget what it means. I'm like, "Wow, that's a sexy word I know." But it's essentially about the combination of philosophy and how one makes that, brings that into action, brings that into practice. And you are doing that and teaching the kids to kind of do that. for themselves. Do you have any memorable experiences or one incident that might stand out from your time there with a kid or with the artwork or with an overall like experience that might have happened as part of that transformative process you're describing?
Oh, my goodness. So so many. I think for one, there was one year that we decided to take a group of teens to the Indiana Dunes. The one thing about the Indiana Dunes is that it's a preserve, right. It's a forest preserve, as well as a wildlife preserve. And that experience was both exciting, eye opening. The young people you could tell so many of them had never been outside of the city in that kind of natural environment before, so it was a really beautiful moment just seeing them so excited to be, for one, in the water. Like I'm a cancer is like my season. The water is an environment or a space of such great restoration and replenishment for me. And so to see that joy amongst the kids experience that at the lakefront, many who had again, like never left their own neighborhoods, never spent time in a museum. There's just a lot of firsts, right?
Lisa Woolfork 6:14
Yes, yes. And to have them with you. I think to have you be the person that opens doors for them. Yeah, right, that they have someone that looks like them, someone who can really reflect what they might hope to be.
Can we talk about that though, because when I first started this program, it was like, I looked like, and I still sometimes get this to this day, but a lot of them assumed that I was the same age as them.
Lisa Woolfork 6:38
Yes, of course.
So it put me in a really unique position just to be a friend, but also a mentor. And I always kind of underestimate, even though I do this all the time, just the power of simply being present is for these young boys and young girls who oftentimes just need like a listening ear, you know, a little affirmation here and there, and it will take them so far. The second thing that I kind of think about is the experience of actually bringing a cohort to my studio and being able to share with them how to use the sewing machine, you know how to make their own bag.
Lisa Woolfork 7:16
And the studio is your job.
Yes, that's right.
Lisa Woolfork 7:20
This is your job. And like you have a job that does not require you to clock in and clock out. you can have a job that is not extracting from you, you know, you can have a job where you create beauty.
Lisa Woolfork 7:33
Like that could be a job. And I think it's important that kids know that. Because I feel like, I don't know, that there's lots of ways to be free.
Lisa Woolfork 7:41
And to be happy and to create beauty. And they have that possibility within their reach at all times.
That's the thing that I was told growing up. And I was so grateful to my parents for saying that to me, you know. You can do anything that you put your mind to. As long as you can see it, you can achieve it. And I really took that to heart as a kid growing up. I think that's where the word that my mother has been using as of late has been "courage." I think that's where some of my courage to break through into some of these practices. As an artist, the reason why I've felt okay trying out different roles and sort of positions so young, in my kind of career or early in my career, just this notion that anything is possible, right? And that if you can see it, you can truly have it.
Lisa Woolfork 8:30
I want to switch gears a little bit to talk about your use of textiles, and what textiles mean to you and fibers and fabrics. And I remember we were talking earlier, I was telling you that when I was a kid, and I think it's still true that some folks, I'm not sure if it's generational, I'm not sure but my mother and her generation, and even my mother's mother would talk about fabric. But they didn't say "fabric." They said "material." They call fabric “material.” "Okay, let's go to the store and get some material. And we'll do so and so. You got enough material? Gotta make sure you “look you have enough material?" And so for me whenever I hear things about, like material culture, I think about that. Can you talk a bit about textiles and what they mean to you? And on top of that, also Indigo, because I feel like all of that is braided so beautifully through your work.
Thank you so much. I love this question, because I was just writing about it last night, literally. And I like what you're saying about the distinction between the use of our mothers using this word material versus fabric, because I remember that to actually. And I feel like the material in some ways has been a conduit for me to the spiritual and the way that I use textiles and the way that I use this Indigo material has been a way for me to connect and tap into that unseen force, with myself, but then also with others as well. I've really used the making process both to extend my own personal like questions, but also out to ask questions with other people, other Black folk who have questions about their origins, other Black folk who have questions about one, like, where is it safe for us to convene and to gather and be free and be ourselves, you know? That takes discipline. It also takes a little bit of faith or hope. And so yeah, I've really been working with textiles and these materials. This was something that probably one of the earliest things my great grandmother taught me how to do was to sew with a needle and thread and how to hop on the machine.
I was one of those great grandchildren who, we made the mini quilt. We made the little outfits for our dresses, or our dolls. So yeah, I have really enjoyed working with textiles and working with cloth. To me cloth is another connector. It's something that we all as human beings have a relationship to.
Lisa Woolfork 10:53
And I like the fact that to me, it feels like a great catalyst for driving stories, which is something that has been a central source of inspiration for me is just the role of stories, how they shaped our sense of self, and knowing and again, like community. So yeah, I use all of those things. I think about the richness just of being a descendant of African people, the way in which the cloth, the weave of a cloth, the designs that are embedded into a cloth, the role that color plays in a cloth, all of these things, they have meaning. And that's something that also is really important to me. That meaning contributes to our, you know, our memory, our remembrance of, again, just reminding us who we are. I think kind of quilts serve the same purpose as that.
Lisa Woolfork 11:43
Mhmm. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about indigo as a dye, as a process and as a social agent.
Lisa Woolfork 11:53
And you might recall from Catherine McKinley's book on indigo. She was on the podcast. She was on the podcast for her African Lookbook.
I thought I saw note about that.
Lisa Woolfork 12:00
It was on the podcast for African Lookbook which was episode 99. Y'all go check that out, episode 99. And she talks about indigo, as we know it as both an object, but also one of the things that helped to fuel the slave trade. And it became a thing for which people were traded. It became an asset that was so valuable, and yet, it's also a craft of beauty in the same way though, that people would be really harmed. Can you talk a bit about why indigo is something that you bring into your practice. Like what is to be learned in this day and age from indigo? Is it just uncovering part of the story or reclaiming? How do you approach that,
You know, it's a big question, and in some ways I'm still striving to answer this question. I think this is why this material has not quite left my practice. I started initially working with indigo out of art school, again, like being in a department where like my art history and education, particularly around craft tradition and Black people's contributions to craft and textile production was really missing. And so I spent time for about five or six years before I returned to my graduate studies, just doing research for myself. And somehow in a roundabout way, one of the first things I landed on was the use and production of indigo, how the origin story around that, I think there's many origin stories, but the space in which I sort of land is Yorubaland, right, and the Adire women who cultivated indigo and tie and dyed cloth as a means for beauty, as a means for creating economic wealth and empowerment. They were the mothers and the stewards of the cultivation of this plant, the production of this cloth and also the marketplace. So it wasn't until, I believe it was around the late 1800s, where the production of the synthetic Indigo by BASF, this German company, tampered with all of that. And so these women, they were again, like the leaders and agents of this thing, facilitating the circulation of this, what Catherine McKinley calls this is "the color that seduced the world." Everybody wanted a taste of this blue, and it was at the time also something that was very difficult to cultivate naturally. Indigo has been a driving force for me to explore some of these conversations around economics. I take responsibility and I think it's a privilege to be able to know where it is that you are from, right. I take responsibility. That is something that I don't really take lightly. And so part of that work, I think for me, especially as I get older is really learning my stories and doing the best that I can to learn them and learn them thoroughly. And in a lot of instances it requires me to go to the source. That's something that is on my radar. But again, I think it's important because erasure is so prevalent in our communities, right? And the things that they're telling us in our history books, you know, in our history classes, and these educational systems is also troubling. So I think it's important that we do our own work to learn the truth.
Lisa Woolfork 15:33
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Well, I want to talk about some of your projects. All of your projects seem very connected, not just by you and your visioning, but also it seems like a commitment to justice, to liberation. And I was thinking specifically about Finding Ijeoma. I'm wanting you to talk about what that project meant for you, like what it meant to start Finding Ijeoma and to build that. Let us know a bit more about that.
Absolutely. Okay, so Finding Ijeoma was a project that I initially started in 2015 through a partnership with the Chicago Cultural Center, right here, downtown. They had initially started this residency for artists to spend three months in these massive studios and just make or do what they want over that time period. And so what I had decided to do was actually to host a series of workshops and events that were honestly lifestyle driven, things that I found of value. So I partnered with other creatives, Black creatives in the city, across wellness, the arts, music, young people. I had a little camp out in my studio inviting young people to come and make art overnight, which was really dope.
Lisa Woolfork 17:36
Everybody wakes up the next morning like, "I wanna be an artist!"
Yes! No, seriously, some of those girls still like, check in with me to this day, which is just again, a blessing. You just never know whose life you're going to touch.
Lisa Woolfork 17:49
I partnered with some DJs and had a couple of dinners. All of this was ultimately hoping to get at, who is Alexandria, my own kind of identity. Ijeoma is my middle name, and it means "safe or good or fruitful journey." And it's a name that fathers give to their daughters.
Lisa Woolfork 18:10
What is the hope behind that name?
Yeah, the hope behind that name. I mean, for me, it feels like almost a blessing. No matter where I travel, no matter where I go, I can experience sweetness. And I feel like I can attest to that. It really is the simplicity of that. I don't have to go too far from my own backyard to have everything that I need. Or I don't have to look too far. Let's say I'm not at my physical home, but that sense of home is sort of within, that I can be resourceful enough to get those things that I need, or ask for what it is that I need. The asking part is really important.
Lisa Woolfork 18:48
Can you talk a little bit about how the DJs helped to propel the vision of storytelling?
Lisa Woolfork 18:52
Because I think of a DJ and I'm like, "Oh it's time to turn up." DJs do that, you know, but I want to hear more about how that becomes a means of storytelling.
Absolutely. I've used DJing and the instrument of the DJ controller to work through different questions that I might have in the studio. Like I've done some mixes where I've taken sound bites from either conversations that I've had with people or sound bites from things and I'm watching on YouTube with some of my teachers or what have you. And blending that in with music, the things that get my body dancing and moving, the things that ultimately uplift and affirm me. So I've used DJing and the mixes on that end to kind of ask questions that I'm working through in the studio, to kind of work people through a story or a journey. But then also in physical space I think there's something really powerful about the role of the DJ and how you quite literally get to shape the experience for other people's feelings, you know, their emotions. You're navigating them through this own type of vibration. Right?
Lisa Woolfork 20:02
I pay attention to that right very down to the number of BPM that I'm using in the music. We're seeing more women DJs come to the forefront, right, which is, in this particular field, it has been predominantly male. The gift and blessing that I have, as a woman who has been invited to come out in my city and elsewhere to share her perspective with others is something that is really powerful. And again, I don't take it lightly. Like you're going to get an experience that centers women, Black women, first and foremost, because that's who I am.
Lisa Woolfork 20:42
And it's important to me that my sisters feel good in the space. I know something's wrong, if my ladies are not dancing. Yeah, so I think to a degree, I am still exploring just the range of possibilities that can take place with DJing. But that, it's a way of exercising a voice saying the things that I can't say, I was not really gifted with a super amazing Beyonce, you know, singing voice or whomever. So DJing and making mixes has been a way, a conduit for me being able to express some of those things. I would say too with Finding Ijeoma, kind of the long range vision of that, is to use Finding Ijeoma as a lifestyle and storytelling platform for sharing not only my stories, but the stories of folks in my communities.
Lisa Woolfork 21:35
Right. Even some of the kids that you talked about in the program that you did earlier, when you first started, some of these same kids can grow up to be the ones who tell stories on this platform that you've created,
Lisa Woolfork 21:45
Really it is just also well structured, with such internal sustainabilities built in. And I think that's really, it's very powerful. It also reminds me of, when you're talking about dancing, and music, I was thinking about the vibrations, because no music is all vibration, you know, sound waves. We're looking at these waves on this screen right now to measure our voices. And I was thinking about the vibrations of fibers and fabric and how bodies, people vibrate. And it had me thinking about the kinetic possibilities of art. And yesterday, one of the quotes from the discussion, it was and I forgot who they were quoting, but I do know Alice Walker said something similar. But she said, "Art takes the ceiling off our imagination." That was Mariame Kaba. Thank you. And that was a quote from her. It takes the ceilings off our imaginations. And it's such a beautiful image to imagine, like you're in a car or whatever and then it becomes a convertible, you know, and there's no roof and it's like, "oh, wait!" I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how the vibrations of the music and dancing might connect to what it means to have a fiber or a garment on your body. That's also in a vibrational alignment. You know what I'm saying? And I'm wondering, do you sense that audio vibration through the DJ, the kinetic vibration and movement of the dance, and then the fabrics themselves? Like putting all those three things together?
Absolutely. I mean, that's my wildest dream. I have this script that I'm working to complete. It is called Amiri Origin Stories. And release the first chapter of this film is called The Reason Why We Hunt as the prologue to that. But my vision for this story is to ultimately bring together my work and interest in fiber, textile art, costumery, the performativity of that, the materiality of that. I mean, I think of the ancestors and the ways in which they were able to (unclear) the kinetic nature of something like beads, and feathers. These are all things that really, even cowrie shells. These are all things that really excite me, materials that I love to keep close with me in the studio. And I just want nothing more but to see it all activated, right, like one.
Lisa Woolfork 24:05
Especially when I think about cowrie shells. I know in Spanish, they sometimes refer to cowrie shells as la boca del spiritu.
Yes, like the mouth of the ancestors.
Lisa Woolfork 24:14
The mouth of the Spirit. And it's just like, yeah. That's awesome. I want to turn for our last segment to talk about what it means to teach here. You talk about the classes that you teach. You said Social Fabric was a class. And is there another one?
Yes, I also teach Intro to Fiber and Materials Studies and Advanced Fiber Material Studies. So I have the really unique role or responsibility of both introducing people to the department at the school, which is a unique department in itself. We don't really have too many fiber and materials studies, as far as I understand programs across the country for people to study these things. (crosstalk)
Exactly. So I get to seduce people into joining us, but then I also get to see them off at the end, life after school. How do we make sense of all of these things that we've been doing in this safe or comfortable or whatever, maybe sometimes challenging space? How do we take those lessons and bring them out into the real world? And this summer class, Social Fabrics, has been an interesting, I'm kind of doing both of those things as one in three weeks time, like
Lisa Woolfork 25:23
Six hours a day, you said?
Six hours a day,Monday through Friday, I'm working.
Lisa Woolfork 25:29
You absolutely are.
And the students are working with me, which has been really amazing. We're an intimate group. This is the smallest class I've ever worked with. But I am so grateful because it's allowed for us to move at a pace. Although the class feels really accelerated to me, it's allowed for us to move in this slowness that I think has been really rich to our discussion. And also like the amazing work that they're generating right now. I'm so proud of them. I'm proud of myself.
Lisa Woolfork 25:58
Yes, you should be. It's really wonderful. Because I think that sometimes as a sewist, and as artists, I sometimes believe that people don't think enough about fabric. I don't think people put enough energy into imagining where it comes from, what it means to do so sustainably, like why does it look this way? What are the properties that give it these you know, whatever. And to have a class where that's what you talk about, you talk about textiles. I don't know, I just find that very impressive and super cool.
This slogan of the Stitch Please podcast is that we will help you get your stitch together. That's the slogan of the podcast, "We will help you get your stitch together." I'm going to ask you, what advice would you give to our listeners to help them get their stitch together? What advice would you share that's helped you? What advice do you wish you had known earlier? What drives your practice? Any of those could probably be a good way to help us get our stitch together.
Yeah, I mean, the biggest one for me is don't overthink it. Just go for it. I keep using this word being courageous. I think that especially in these times, and the feedback that I'm receiving from the people that I'm working with, there's a lot of hesitation actually to go after our heart desires. There's a lot of fear around that because of just again, the environment and conditions in which folks are socializing or not really socializing with one another.
Lisa Woolfork 27:23
And so for me, in addition to that, courageousness I feel like it's been really important for me to create a strong circle of people around me who I trust.
Lisa Woolfork 27:35
And trust me to have my best interest at heart. You know, keep it real with me. So that when it is time for me to be courageous, I feel uplifted and fortified and making the decision that is the next right move for me, Alexandria. Right and not someone else.
Lisa Woolfork 27:53
Yes. I love it. On that note, I want to thank you, Alexandria. Oh my gosh, Alexandra Eregbu, is amazing.
Lisa Woolfork 28:00
Thank you. Thank you. I want to thank Nicole for coming out. Nicole is one of the hosts of The Asian Sewist Collective podcast, I highly recommend that podcast. It is beautifully well researched. You will learn something. They have a beautiful rapport. It's a really great vibe, and you will absolutely learn something. It's really very smart and just wonderful. They have quilters on. They have all manner of people who do all manner of amazing sewing. So that has been a real gift. I want to thank also Latrice Sampson Richards, my wonderful producer, for coming all the way from Fort Lauderdale to come up and produce this show. I'd like to thank also the Stitch by Stitch Conference for hosting us and for allowing us to have this session. I will not name all of the organizers because I don't have my notes. So I don't want to miss anybody. But they are a wonderful, wonderful team. And they've done a really beautiful job. So thank you. Thank you and thank you.
You've been listening to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you joining us this week and every week for stories that center Black women, girls and femmes in sewing. We invite you to join the Black Women Stitch Patreon community with giving levels beginning at $5 a month. Your contributions help us bring the Stitch Please podcast to you every week. Thank you for listening. Thank you for your support, and come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.