It has been a challenging winter since my wonderful mother passed away last month. She was the best person I knew. I am lucky to have art to turn to, as it always proves to be such a refuge. I practically run to board the train each week for art class in downtown L.A. Although I still enjoy painting, my latest refuge has been working with fabric — I’ve been creating a large piece that explores my family’s past.
My father always warned me not to look into his family’s side, saying “you may find a horse thief.” So far no horse thieves but definitely some twists and turns. Turns out I am descended, in small part, from people from Benin and Ghana. My grandfather was one quarter black; my dad was an octoroon.
As I have learned, the DeCuirs came to the U.S. in 1720 from Macon, a town that was once in France but is now in Belgium following a few wars and boundary changes. In Louisiana, our newly arrived ancestors started marrying those already there….many were free people of color.
Left: Albert DeCuir sailed to America in 1720; hand and machine stitched. Right: Checked fabric is French from the 1800s. Symbols are from those found on a grís-grís bag, worn by girls for protection. Note Islamic verses; this tradition traces back to Senegal & Ghana.
Apparently, Louisiana has a complicated racial and colonial history. Before Louisiana became an American territory in 1803, the area was under French and then Spanish control. Some of these free people of color were quite wealthy and even owned slaves themselves. (At the time, slaves could gain their freedom in several ways, by fighting for the colony or teaching the master’s children, for example.) I have a hard time getting into the mind of my slave-owning French, Black and Creole ancestors. I can’t help but think about how bizarre this is while I sew.
Using fabric from the present and the past, this new artwork uses as a reference point the area of Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, but rather than just copy a map, I have used it as a way to suggest many elements that come to mind: the much-divided plots of land for sugar, indigo, and cotton fields, the winding Mississippi, the mixing of French and African languages that became Kouri-Vini, the stolen lives of endless work, and the fact that I nearly lived my whole life knowing nothing about these ancestors.
*Re. Riverlake Plantation: I opened The NY Times in December of 2019 to learn, to my horror, that author Ernest Gaines (Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) grew up on Riverlake where five generations of his family had lived as slaves. About 20 years ago, he purchased the unkempt graveyard in order to be sure it would be taken care of properly.
Suzanne’s website is suzannedecuirfineart.com. Click here to watch “Life Jackets,” the 8-minute film (free streaming) by Pamela Beere Briggs & William McDonald featuring another of Suzanne’s recent projects.