How to Make It

It’s Never Just One Thing

Anna Carnick

Charmaine Bee sews together powerful personal stories at Emma Scully Gallery

This month, Emma Scully Gallery in New York presents Charmaine Bee, a solo exhibition dedicated to a single, potent work by the young American multidisciplinary artist. And it’s a piece decidedly worthy of its own stage.

“When I began working on this project,” Bee says, “it was one of those dense moments when I was processing so much all at once. I was thinking about the shift happening in Black communities and in my own personal space. I was thinking about my Gullah heritage, about African diaspora experiences and spirituality. I was thinking about Sandra Bland, who had just been killed; the state violence that impacts Black people; our histories; our economies; about ways of communicating beyond this realm.”

Untitled Indigo Piece #3, Portal Series (2017) by Charmaine Bee. Photo by Joe Kramm, Courtesy of Emma Scully Gallery

The resulting piece, Untitled Indigo Piece #3, consists of over 2,000 unbleached, empty tea bags, carefully sewn together into a quilt-like structure, which Bee then hand dyes in indigo. The work feels at once monumental in stature and beautifully delicate.

Untitled Indigo Piece #3 is part of the ongoing Portal Series, which Bee conceived as “gateways” to traverse time and place. It is also a powerful example of Bee’s approach, which stitches together personal history, African diasporic experiences, energy healing, and beyond. The series incorporates natural materials from the Sea Islands in South Carolina, such as rice and indigo, that were historically harvested and processed by Black women during the era of American slavery, until an 1863 hurricane decimated the plantations. Scully observes, “Charmaine seeks out and works with historically resonant materials—indigo, tea, and more—and as a result their pieces all have a very strong presence.”

“Plus,” Scully adds, “there’s the quilting, a design tradition that has historically been overlooked—meaning both the process itself and the people who were doing it.  And that tradition, which is almost always viewed within the strict frame of American craft, is much richer than most people know.”

Charmaine Bee at their sewing machine; Photo © Charmaine Bee

Raised in South Carolina on the water and now based in Bahia, Brazil, Bee is both a multidisciplinary artist and an herbalist with their own tea and tincture company, Bee’s Well Apothecary, which focuses in large part on making healing blends for Black communities. In much of their work, Bee aims to honor the rich plant and herbal knowledge passed down over generations and brought over during the transatlantic slave trade.

They focused on photography, video, and film in undergrad at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago before earning an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2017. During their studies at SAIC, they also began researching Southern Black American quilting traditions, and over time learned to sew and dye. Bee says, “I wanted to honor the history of quilts being in this radical space of transmitting messages, even secret messages and histories, and also acknowledge the beauty of them—not only their brilliant designs and aesthetics, but also how beautiful they are as practical pieces.” Bee realized they could use the materials already around them, and began experimenting with sewing empty tea bags, creating installations as well as a performance piece. 

Drying tea bags, hand-dyed in indigo, in Bee's studio. Photo © Charmaine Bee

Not long after, Bee was awarded a grant from The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation to research The Green Book, an annual guidebook for African-American motorists published from 1936 to 1966. Using a digitized version of the historic guide, they charted a cross country road trip from Los Angeles to South Carolina to research the enduring legacy of violence against Black people. They also decided to use the opportunity to visit the rice and indigo plantations in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Black women were historically forced to work. While they drove, thoughts swept through their mind: thoughts of their grandmother, who’d also worked with plants, passing down knowledge across continents and generations; of the brutalities perpetrated against Black people, past and present; of Sandra Bland; and even their own family road trips as a child—remembering “that there were places we stopped and places we didn’t stop.”

But when they got to Beaufort, they found the indigo plantations had been wiped out long ago by the aforementioned hurricane. Undeterred, back in LA, Bee decided to learn how to work with indigo and fermentation, and soon began work on the piece that now hangs in New York.

All along, Bee says, they were inspired by “the cyclical nature of histories,” and how “things always loop back together.” The work at Emma Scully is a manifestation of these connections. Through it, Bee explains, “I’m talking about road trips and histories; Black people traversing geographic space, by choice or by force; the legacies of our material world; and the wormholes of time; it’s all represented.”

Untitled Indigo Piece #3, Portal Series (2017) by Charmaine Bee. Photos by Joe Kramm, Courtesy of Emma Scully Gallery

Further, they observe, “Materials in particular have such multi-layered histories. Someone from Indonesia, for example, will relate differently to indigo than someone from Sierra Leone or South Carolina. Even though I’m bringing my personal experience of being Gullah to it—the legacy of indigo as a cash crop in the Sea Islands and my own family history—I find it very exciting that viewers bring their own experiences and heritages to it, too. The layered global histories attached to the trade and production of this plant in particular are fascinating.”

Bee says they are particularly pleased that, in the current show, one can really “enter the piece at the gallery,” so that a part of the work hangs on either side of you. And at moments, “especially if the window’s open and there’s a breeze, it is truly multisensory; there’s a scent and there’s movement—which, for me, evokes the idea of transport across the oceans.” Encircled by the piece, one finds themselves in the midst of all these rich histories and touchpoints, spanning time and place. And by bringing their own story into a swirl of others, one can experience an intimate yet powerful maelstrom.

As Bee says, “It’s never just one thing.”

Charmaine Bee is on view at Emma Scully Gallery in New York through March 12th. Shop Untitled Indigo Piece #3 here.