Each weekday morning on the way to the office of my day-job at a community college, I have the pleasure of passing the small, glassed-in campus art gallery. Then, each evening I catch another glimpse of visual inspiration on the way out, which often sparks ideas to mull over on the commute home and later apply to my night-job as a writer. The January exhibit of works by Lisa Qualls has captured my imagination and begun the New Year and the new semester with a remarkable blend of the timely and the timeless.
Imagine hoop skirts covered with diaphanous silks in the colors of ivory, saffron, cocoa, and cayenne, all floating in the space between floor and ceiling, seemingly waltzing on light and air. This is the vision that stopped me in my tracks, then compelled me into the gallery for a closer look and to hear the artist’s commentary on her creations. Since my work as a novelist focuses on the mid to late 19th century American South, I immediately thought of plantation mistresses in their restrictive crinolines. But these skirts suspended in the gallery are so much more than costumes from a bygone era.
The series Lisa Qualls has entitled “Paris is Burning” combines the artist’s research into the complicated relationship between Europe and Africa with her own experiences of meeting African immigrants in Europe. Qualls states she is “interested in how cultures absorb and share garment forms, patterns, body markings, and ritual objects.” Her artwork reveals aspects of cultural identity, issues of immigration, and influences of colonialism that have shaped history and continue to affect current events. Some of Qualls’s drawings incorporate period European textile and wallpaper patterns with African ritual masks or body markings. One especially arresting pencil drawing on vellum presents the image of an African man dressed in a stylish 19th century European suit and displaying ritual scarification on his face. Another depicts a hauntingly lovely African woman dressed in white, the hem of her gown blending into the intricate pattern at her feet, the design pigmented with coffee and beeswax.
And then there are the skirts of silk organza over cotton and boning, echoing the past and the caging and concealing of women’s bodies, but offering, as well, other compelling layers of meaning. The artist calls her grouping of skirts “Surveillance Maritime”, explaining it “is about Africans leaving in boats from the Canary Islands and trying to reach the coast of France.” Qualls has applied text in English, French, and Spanish to the dyed silk, describing the European reaction to illegal African immigration. European surveillance of the coastal waters leads to the apprehension and return of Africans trying to enter Europe illegally and sometimes leads to the rescue of people in danger of dying in the boats. In the context of the exhibit, the hoop skirts become vessels, ribbed boats covered over with a skin of fabric that tells a story of a modern quest for freedom. Yet, they are reminders, too, of long-ago ships that carried Africans into slavery.
With “Paris is Burning”, through layers of line, color, texture, and text, Lisa Qualls captures layers of complexity found in the enmeshed histories of Africans and Europeans. From her work I gratefully draw new inspiration for my historical fiction, a deeper sense of the ways cultures exploit and engage each other, and a greater appreciation for the interplay between the visual and literary arts.
For more about artist Lisa Qualls: