A code is a system of signs or symbols used for communication. Often the information is disguised or hidden in some way, allowing only those who know the code to decipher it. The artists in (de)coding convert images, texts, and ephemeral materials into contemporary artworks. Drawing from popular culture, they transform antique quilts and braided rugs, printed fabrics, casino playing cards, matchbook covers, newspapers, and other printed matter into new work that carries some of the original material or meaning encoded within it. In this way, they act as both decoders of cultural messages, as well as creators of new coded systems.
Each of the works in (de)coding acknowledges or responds to its original source in a particular way. Some artists appropriate and alter physical materials, adding or subtracting elements or deconstructing and repurposing recognizable fragments. Several redact or obscure information, while others translate text into visual language or even music. All of them break the codes embedded in their sources and use them to create unique new codes, building multiple layers of meaning into their work.
In linguistics, code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or dialects in a single conversation. In effect, all of the (de)coding artists are code-switchers, employing multiple visual languages simultaneously. The work they create remains in conversation with its source materials, even as the dialects differ.
Participating artists: Gina Adams, DARNstudio, Elizabeth Duffy, Ghost of a Dream, Shanti Grumbine, Kwesi Kwarteng, Debra Ramsay, Leslie Roberts, and Viviane Rombaldi-Seppey
DARNstudio (David Anthone + Ron Norsworthy)
Paper matchbooks, cotton thread, wool felt
Courtesy of the artists
CAKEwalk is a large-format quilt from the ongoing series, Another Country, by the artist collaborative, DARNstudio. Like the 19th century quilts believed to be used by abolitionists as markers along the Underground Railroad, the quilts in this series are also symbolic signposts, conveying coded messages within their materials, patterns, and stitching.
DARNstudio’s quilts are made of custom matchbooks that depict logos of businesses or communities where unarmed people of color have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. Each matchbook bears an alpha-numeric code referencing the initials and death dates of a specific victim. Bound together by cotton thread sewn in connecting crosses, the overall effect is one of a net cast over the surface, perhaps creating a visual metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of chattel slavery.
The cakewalk quilt pattern takes its name from the exaggerated dancing that enslaved Black Americans performed, caricaturing the dress, gestures, and social customs of the planter class. Plantation owners served as judges for these contests and would award a cake to the winners, often unaware that they had been mocked in the process. Incorporating a
motif of colorful layered cakes rotating around an axis of concentric squares, the pattern acknowledges the structure of the original dance, with couples standing in square formations—men on the inside and women on the outside—as they moved around the room. Interested in how the term has evolved, the artists observe, “Contemporary usage of the term, particularly ‘it was a cakewalk’ and ‘takes the cake,’ has precluded, if not completely erased its original meaning, and most crucially neutered its initial inception as a clever retaliation against racial inequity from popular awareness.”