Full of love and spiritual closeness to her family and to her ancestors, Letitia Huckaby shared with me all that her soul is obsessed with and how these obsessions appeared in This Same Dusty Road— her solo exhibition, which recently closed at Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge.
Growing up in a military family, Huckaby never stayed in one place for long, but because of her extended family, she will always be rooted in the South. She pulls from those roots for her work, but it’s about more than a representation of place. Her practice is a vast and sacred altar that exposes the enduring consequences of something as tremendous as the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, to the impact of something much more intimate, like the matriarch of her family passing. When these stories are told in the same place—the way the past has touched us, and contextualized every space we occupy—is overwhelmingly revealed.
A story of one Black life is a story about many Black lives and this is clear in This Same Dusty Road. At first glance, I was assumed these portraits were her family. I think this is because she handled each story, and each life so intentionally which comes across in the intricacies of the work. What she did so softly, was narrate an intimate story about a body of people, that unlike a journalistic effort, had the same feeling as being given a glimpse of someone’s family photo book. Huckaby walks me through her process and some of the projects that comprise the exhibition. This interview was conducted by phone and edited for publication.
Taylor Janae Manginoult: The work is so rich; there’s so many objects and photographs. I was wondering about your process and how long it takes you to generally finish a piece or feel like you come to an end point each.
Letitia Huckaby: Generally, I spend about two years on a body of work. I always start by taking pictures and consider myself a photographer first and foremost. Later, I start playing with those images and printing them on fabric and deciding if they’re going to be a quilt or a dress or whatever, a sack or things like that. So, it’s kind of fluid, my process. I feel a lot like I’m responding to the work and what the images are saying.
Almost all of the portraits are of my grandmother over the course of her life. I think the youngest one is an image of her when she was about 16, and the oldest one was the image that I took of her in a cotton field. But they’re just her life. There was one piece that has a screen print of my silhouette in it, but it’s mostly about her and then all those fabrics came from her collection. After she passed away, I inherited a lot of her heirloom fabrics and printed onto that.
TJM: I love how every object is really based in one place [the South]. I was wondering if you could talk more about [Quilt #2, 2007]. You have a lot of photos, where it’s a silhouette portrait, but we don’t always see the making of the silhouette. There are several in this quilt where we can see that it was obviously someone shot through a sheet or some sort of fabric.
LH: Most of the images in this quilt are white cotton fields or cotton photographed as if it’s a rose or a precious object. And then I wanted to also have the silhouettes. My husband, Sedrick Huckaby and I took the sheets to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and found interesting locations to hang them up, almost reminiscent of a clothesline. I wanted to be able to show the environment because the landscape was so important to what I was doing in this particular quilt.
My dad was from Greenwood, Mississippi, which is the fourth largest producer of cotton. They call themselves the cotton capital of the world: the Mississippi Delta. I started working on fabric after he passed away. Really, it was his passing that made me really interested in cotton. How it sort of represents African American culture to an extent. You know, we’re so tied to the land. That idea—and the fact that we don’t really own a lot of land—started going through my mind. It’s very symbolic for our history and culture. So, I got really obsessed with cotton, and to this day, I still print on cotton. I didn’t use cotton for the pieces that are about my family in Louisiana. I used silk, because in that project I was really trying to make it feel more regal, like old Masters paintings. The neighborhood my grandmother lived in was surrounded on three sides by cotton fields.
TJM: I wanted to ask if your family had a specific relationship to the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans.
LH: No they don’t. I was on a plane coming from Texas to Baton Rouge and a talkative gentleman who was sitting next to me on the plane—he had done a lot of work rebuilding in New Orleans after Katrina and mentioned that he had worked on the motherhouse for this order of nuns, and where it was located. I had no idea there was this order of nuns there. I found out that it was an order of Black nuns that started around the end of slavery that was founded by a Creole woman. When I first started as an artist, I started as a documentary photographer. Bayou Baroque, 2014 felt like a shift from my family back to my love of telling other people’s stories. It was really the first time that I shifted back to that practice since I started working with fabric.
I started working with fabric after my father passed. Cotton Pests and Diabetes, 2007, is a piece that I made about my father; that’s his obituary in the center. He died from complications related to diabetes and I started looking at how diabetes ravages the Black community. All of those salmon colored patches are actually microscopic images of tissue that’s been attacked by diabetes. I wanted to juxtapose those with images of the cotton field after they’ve raked out all the cotton. The cotton fields look ravaged in the same way that the tissue does. That was my tribute to him, but also a commentary on health and diabetes in the Black community.
TJM: This one’s really complex, just thinking about the destruction and devastation of the earth, but then also, you know, the lack of care for our bodies. Living in food deserts, living with lack of access to healthcare…and the ways that just like life itself, is not really cared for in our culture or structure.
LH: Exactly. It’s something we’re really wrestling with and it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic level you’re at. We’re losing a lot of people because of lack of quality healthcare, resources, and like you said, even decent food.
TJM: I loved how in Bayou Baroque (2014) I didn’t know what was going on, but something about the fact of how it was printed and also the temperature of the photo made it feel really familiar anyway. This is a goat, right? Can you talk a little bit about this photo?
LH: Yeah. I really love this image, this goat. There used to be hundreds of them out there in this field. I grew up in the military; I didn’t grow up in Louisiana. So, we would drive back to visit family on vacations whenever we were not stationed too far away. My family all lived way out in the country. And there were certain things that I looked for along the road that let me know we were getting closer to my grandmother’s house. I didn’t know highways and streets and all that kind of stuff, but there were certain things that I looked for and I knew. This field was one of those kind of markers for me, but it used to be hundreds of goats out there in this field. I just loved as a kid to see all those goats.
By the time I took this picture, maybe 10 years ago, there was just this one goat left out there in the field. And now, it’s completely grown over all the way to the road. It had this kind of poetic and spiritual thing about it, too, this sort of lone white goat in the landscape.
TJM: I had read, maybe in your bio, how important spirituality is to you. So, I was wondering how that shows up in the other bodies of work in the show.
LH: Oftentimes people look at Black people of a certain socioeconomic status and don’t see anything of value. And with my work, I’m showing the value in every soul, in every individual—the beauty of them—and hopefully elevating them through fine art. I hope that the work reflects people in a dignified and uplifting manner, and the respect of life and value of them as children of God would just come through in the work.
With the nuns, I was thinking about these women who had dedicated their lives to serving, and shining a light back on them. They’ve spent their lives sinking into the background so that others can have a full life, others can have a great education, others can have access to health care. So I wanted to give them the same thing; to honor and celebrate them.
TJM: Everything that is in the exhibition, not just the people you photographed have been elevated, all the plant life and the frames and the clothing line have been also. It’s so regal. There’s so many different stories being told, but it’s so cohesive and understated.
LH: That’s what I like. I like a quiet punch.