Simone Elizabeth Saunders, Unwavering Grace: Legacy of the Stars, 2021. Photo by Jesse Tamayo.
Rug tufting may have had a “resurgence” during pandemic lockdowns—as seen in the steady stream of homemade rugs on social media feeds—but Calgary-based artist Simone Elizabeth Saunders was creating her own tufted designs long before that, with her love for the time-worn technique beginning in art school. “One of my instructors showed our class a slide of an artist using a tufting gun. I had never seen one before and I fell instantly for the tool, a powerful handheld machine. From that moment on, I committed myself to this practice and I taught myself how to use it.” In u•n•i•t•y, her solo exhibition on view at Contemporary Calgary until the end of January 2022, Saunders showcases her hand-tufted large-scale portraits, interweaving threads and themes of belonging, personal history, lived Afro-diasporic experiences and Black sisterhood. In some ways, each intertwining thread—with its vibrant, joyous colour in acrylic, wool and velvet—represents each of the interconnected narratives and cultures within the African diaspora.
The message of her work is clear: Blackness, in all its forms, is to be celebrated, honoured and handled with care. Saunders is informed by her “Jamaican heritage, art history, literature, music and current events”. Each work usually centres on a singular figure, sometimes pulled from the headlines, as in the senseless murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Others call for more all-encompassing representations of Black femininity. These Black figures are united to shape a community, brimming with resilience and joy.
Speaking to us from Calgary, Saunders shared how her Contemporary Calgary exhibition came together and what it means to demand to be seen.
AGOinsider: Where did the title of the exhibition come from? What does “u•n•i•t•y” mean concerning the work in the exhibition?
Saunders: u•n•i•t•y is the coming together of a sisterhood. My textiles champion Black womanhood, uplifting narratives of our joy and resilience. Black voices deserve to be heard and Black women to be protected, respected and to be seen. u•n•i•t•y is also a representation of the intertwining of threads, becoming unified as one, illuminating these narratives.
AGOinsider: This work seems to be deeply personal to you and your experiences. Tell us about your creative process.
Saunders: This work is a part of me. As a woman of mixed race, I have always searched for belonging. I hold onto my history and honour my father who is Jamaican, and my ancestors. I want to see myself reflected in where I live. Canada has such a diverse Black community, sharing so much culture and vibrancy. I am inspired each day by my journey, in conversations with family and friends. I draw from the current social climate, from the music I Iisten to, books I read. My background is in theatre, so narrative plays a major role in my process. Colour, pattern and symbolism are all factors I consider when adding to my narrative when tufting.
AGOinsider: Your work centres on uplifting Black figures and narratives, especially those rooted in Black womanhood. You often place Black women in a position of strength like in your Four Queens series. How do you feel that your work upends stereotypical representations about Black women and embodies new, transformative ones?
Saunders: Historically, Black women have been oppressed, misrepresented, appropriated from or left out of the narrative completely. Black women are—and always have been—the cornerstone of our culture. It’s time for Black women to shine. I want to uplift my voice and represent Black bodies in a deserving and powerful light. Specifically, from my series of the Four Queens, I was enamoured by the imagery of Alphonse Mucha’s, Precious Stones series. His depiction of women from the era of Art Nouveau had struck a chord in me. This was a male artist with an incredible portrayal of women: all sensual, alluring, graceful, powerful and mysterious. And also, very white. I want to adopt these notions of beauty and turn it into the world I know and the world I want to see reflected. I want to lift us up, rendering in my style I’ve envisioned, Black Nouveau.
AGOinsider: The use of bold, vibrant colours seems intentional as well. How do you select your colour palette?
Saunders: Colours exude vibration, and these vibrations speak to one another. Not only do I focus on the development of tufting the work, but I spend a great deal of time orchestrating the colour within the work. Colours are purveyors of truth and representations of life. Without them, it would all be dull. Colour is my partner in telling the story in my textiles. In sharing my Jamaican heritage, we are a very small island with colourful culture. And that culture has a global impact. From the intoxicating tropics, soulful food, and of course, reggae music. Colours are a cacophony of musicality and it is a rhythm for me to nurture and play with.
AGOinsider: Given the content and context of your work, what has been the most meaningful or profound response to this exhibition?
Saunders: The work being seen has been most rewarding. I created all of these works within the pandemic—tufting was my drive and sanity throughout quarantine. Once I complete a work, it becomes bigger than me. Black women are mighty and it’s time to have a mighty voice. I am contributing to that mighty collective and I feel very fortunate to use my voice in this positive way. Staying connected to the global diaspora of the Black community, honouring myself and my ancestors, fuels me every day. The response from those who have seen the exhibition is not only incredible to me, they are acknowledging our community. I am proud that the work speaks for itself. My textiles are approachable and have their relationships with the viewer. That brings me joy.