Sunday, 9 May 2010

Map of Patterns - dangerous colours and secret messages

The red-shirted protesters in Thailand have got me thinking about the colours of protest - red shirts, brown shirts, black shirts...
Back in February I met a weaver from Burma called Hnin, who told me about a most dangerous colour. In Burmese it is called 'Pin-ne' and means literally 'red tree.’ In Burma, where it has been the chosen colour of defiance for decades - even more than the monks’ saffron robes, wearing this colour is enough to get you arrested or even imprisoned. On my map I have made Burma using a piece of cloth dyed with madder, which roughly approximate to the pinky- brown hues of Pin-ne.

I don’t have a picture of Hnin, but I do have a picture of the wonderful dolls she makes depicting all the different tribal people of Burma.

I have a distant memory of a similar story about the subversive use of colour, told to me years ago. This time it was Mussolini’s Turin, where the staunch communist housewives of the city, chose the same day to do all their red washing, thus bedecking the balconies and windows of the narrow city streets with the colours of the communist resistance. For this reason on my map Italy is red – but there are many other wonderful textile stories I am waiting to tell about Italy...

While I was staying in Great Barrington, Western Massachusetts – the same place where I met Hnin, I learned about the Underground Railroad – a series of hidden paths through woods and fields that helped slaves escape from the South to the relative safety of the North during the first half of the 19th century. “Agents”, “conductors”, and “station masters” provided shelter, food, money, directions, means of transportation, and changes of clothes for the slaves: slaves were hidden in secret spaces in homes, in secret compartments in wagons and in the hulls of boats; they hid by day, travelling under the darkness of night, swam rivers, crossed frozen rivers on foot and on horseback, walked tremendous distances, slept in barns, in fields, in woods, and were hunted down by slave and bounty hunters with their tracking hounds.

Historians and scholars have estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves escaped on the Underground Railroad. This number never presented a serious threat to the institution of slavery, but the escape stories filled slave owners with dread and fear.

A section of the Underground Railroad passed through Great Barrington, up through the Housitonic river valley to Stockbridge, then Pittsfield and onto Vermont and Canada and I was intrigued when I discovered that local house slaves helped their fleeing fellow slaves by encoding vital messages about which route to take, where to find food and water and when to beware danger, within the household quilts they made as part of their daily household work.

After all, it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write and it seems entirely feasible to me that the slaves would choose to store and share this most valuable knowledge, within the patterns of everyday objects, like quilts. Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to other knowing slaves. As quilts hung out to air was a common sight on a plantation, neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious – they were hidden in plain view.

One of the most common codes was the ‘Flying Geese’ – a signal to follow the direction of the flying geese as they migrated north in the spring. As most slaves escaped during the spring, along the way, the flying geese could be used as a guide to find water, food and places to rest. The quilt maker had flexibility with this pattern as it could be used in any quilt. It could also be used as a compass where several patterns are used together.

On my map I’ve chosen to use the ‘North Star’ to cover part of North America. This code was a signal with two messages: one to prepare to escape and the other to follow the North Star to freedom in Canada. North was the direction of traffic on the Underground Railroad. This signal was often used in conjunction with the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, which contains a reference to the Big Dipper constellation - two of the Big Dipper’s points lead to the North Star.

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