Cookie Washington's quilt, 'Yemaya,' depicts a Yoruba fable | Credit: J.D. Parlier

Griots of Cotton, Indigo and Clay, an exhibit featuring 80 pieces of art made from raw materials harvested from the earth, will go on display the week of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at the Charleston City Gallery on Prioleau Street.

Curated by Charleston quilt artist Torreah “Cookie” Washington, the exhibit includes artwork commissioned from Black fiber artists in the Lowcountry, the former slaveholding Southern states and the African Diaspora.

The art is part of the permanent collection of the Black Belt Justice Center in Washington, D.C. It is a growing collection. Beginning Jan. 20, the gallery will be open each Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Feb. 28.

The exhibit includes sweetgrass baskets, clay and indigo pieces, dolls, and fiber art, a mix of traditional and art quilts. In addition to Washington, the other Lowcountry artists are Arianne King Comer, Georgette Sanders, Virginia Watson, Lili Singleton and Carolyn Bracket.

The exhibit includes Washington’s quilt, “Yemaya: Goddess of the Sea Gives Birth to All Humankind.” It tells the story of the West African creation goddess often depicted as a mermaid. The legend states Yemaya’s womb spilled forth the 14 Yoruba goddesses and gods, and the breaking of her uterine waters caused a great flood, which created the oceans.

The Yoruba people are an ethnic group from southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin in West Africa. Yoruba territory was known as the Slave Coast, and many of the enslaved people brought to Charleston are descendants of the Yoruba people. As the legion goes, Yemaya birthed the first human woman and man, who became the parents of all mortal beings on earth.

‘Bill of Sale’ tells the story of the United Martin Family tree | Provided

“Ever since the time Black slaves first arrived in the South Carolina Lowcountry in 1670, they brought with them the stories of the ocean and river goddesses,” Washington said. “They carried the stories in their hearts and heads.

“Black fiber artisans uphold the charge of griots, weaving together narratives of resistance into tactile expressions of land memory and visions for the future,” she said.

Another quilt, “Bill of Sale,” tells the story of one branch of the United Martin Family, whose 9,000 family members worldwide trace their ancestry to Trasie, a 17-year-old girl from Cameroon, who was sold into slavery in Charleston. According to a bill of sale, Trasie was sold for $300 on Dec. 17, 1799, to Fairfield County planter John Martin. “Bill of Sale,” created by Northville, Michigan, quilt artist Toya R.B. Thomas, shows the descendants of one branch of the Martin family in Virginia.

Charleston resident Montez Martin said, “As a fifth generation member of the United Martin Family, it gives me great pride to have the family quilt and other materials displayed in the city of the family’s American origin.  Tracie, our enslaved ancestor, disembarked in Charleston, was sold twice, then transported to Fairfield County. There began the United Martin Family over 220 years ago.”

As part of this exhibit members of the Return of the Bees Collective will participate in a social justice quilting bee from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 25 at McLeod Plantation on James Island.

City Gallery guests are asked to reserve free tickets for timed admission into the gallery in advance of their visit. Tickets can be reserved online or by calling the gallery at (843) 958-6484 during normal business hours. Because of the city’s COVID-19 safety protocols, all visitors will be required to wear masks.

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