On July 19th, 2009, while her 1st black president was in office, Aisha Cousins took a vow to wear fabrics bearing Barack Obama’s image every day for one year in BedStuy – a predominantly black American and Caribbean neighborhood with an increasing population of African immigrants. The fabrics were collected from Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, South Africa, and Tanzania shortly after Obama’s election. Cousins often purposefully sought out local African immigrant designers who had grown up seeing fabrics with images of black political leaders in their home countries.** She then wore the Obama fabrics until her friends and neighbors began to see them (and perhaps the mindset they represented) as normal.
Although Cousins was repeatedly encouraged to “take a photo” a day, she opted to document the project by writing a series of short performance art scores which convey specific thoughts or emotion she experienced that year.*About the Title The project is named after Carrie Mae Weem’s series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” It was named this way, so people would be inclined to discuss the two works together. Cousins often references black artists she feels should be studied by future generations as way of encouraging viewers to explore their work. The first time Cousins saw a black presidential fabric was around the time Weems made “From Here I Saw…” Cousins was visiting Senegal in the 1990’s and realized she could not understand the mindset of the women she saw wearing the fabrics because she lived in a different world. When she came across her first Obama fabric in 2009, she thought “After all these years, I have a black presidential fabric too. Now, I’m going to learn to think like the women I saw in Senegal.” She then realized this meant the world was changing. Cousins named the project after Weem’s photo series because the photos capture the world many black Americans lived in prior to Obama’s election. At the same time, Weems’ title references the idea of shifting perspectives which is key to Cousins’ project. **About the Fabric Having clothing made from commemorative portrait fabrics is part of popular culture in over 24 African countries (approximately 50% of the continent). Some of the earliest documented examples date back to the 1930’s, however commemorative fabrics without portraits date back substantially earlier. As African countries regained independence in the 1960’s and began putting black leaders in place, fabrics bearing images of these new black leaders began to appear. The reasons for wearing these fabrics are as varied as the countries and times that produce them. They range from fear of punishment by corrupt politicians to a genuine desire to express support for a politician. For more information on African political fabrics, check out “Long Live the President! Portrait Cloths from Africa” from the TropenMuseum exhibition curated by Paul Faber in 2010… or visit the website for my studio’s annual Black Presidents’ Day Exhibition… or get out there and interview some folks who grew up with them!