She used to be called Sherilyn. That wouldn't last. In 1980s New York, she changed her name to Xenobia, for the ancient warrior queen. Sherilyn was a small name, a name from Seattle, where nothing fit her right. Back when she was still Sherilyn, she stuffed her thin design portfolio under her young arm and went door-to-door at black businesses in Seattle. It was 1974. "I got into Pratt!" she'd say, holding out papers. "I got my acceptance letter, see? Now I just need money for the airplane ticket." Door after door closed. When finally she found a group of supportive black women, they tried to buy her a round-trip ticket and she stopped them: "I only need a one-way," she declared. And with that, Xenobia Bailey was gone from Seattle—the place where she felt she'd never find an African American artist community big enough to nourish her—for 37 years. This winter, having swept back in like a hovering storm, she tells me, "I think my work is more Seattle than anything else."
Bailey's art is the meeting of imperial China, royal Africa, the funky 1970s, science fiction, Eastern healing, European needlework, Native American philosophy—this is not the white Seattle most people imagine when they think of the Pacific Northwest, where even Bellevue has more racial diversity. But Bailey's radiant, crocheted mandalas in every thinkable color are hanging—still, yet throbbing—on sunny yellow walls at Northwest African American Museum in the manner of a proud homecoming parade, in a show called Xenobia Bailey: The Aesthetics of Funk.
It started in Ruby Chow's nursery school.
"You don't know Ruby Chow?" Bailey says. "Oh. Ruby Chow."
A short woman topped by what was once described as "a well-gardened and cultivated creation of hair," Chow was a daughter of Chinese immigrants (she was born on a dock in Seattle) who grew to become the most powerful Asian woman ever to live in Seattle. She died in 2008, after a series of firsts—first Chinese restaurateur outside Chinatown, first Asian American on the King County Council—but a quieter accomplishment was founding a preschool that African American kids "from the projects" (Bailey was born at Yesler Terrace) attended, since they weren't allowed at white schools.
At Ruby Chow's Buddhist preschool in Chinatown, "I remember teatime. It was in a temple," Bailey says. (Bailey doesn't mention this, but it was also blocks from where jazz in Seattle was exploding.) When it was nap time, Bailey didn't nap. She crept upstairs to where the elders made crafts. She watched them sew the magisterial turquoise, red, and gold costumes and slippers for the Chi-ettes (the Chinese Community Girls Drill Team Chow founded that still performs in Seafair's Torchlight Parade). Chinese opera posters, with their elaborate costumes, hung on the walls.
"Ruby Chow's husband, Ping, was a Chinese opera star," Bailey remembers. "And Ruby had a Chinese cooking television show! I mean, she was sustaining her culture, but giving it to everybody."
Chow never graduated from high school, but Bailey got to college thanks to affirmative action, she says. Classic: Before college, nobody thought she was much of a student. At Garfield High School, art class consisted of students out in a cold trailer drawing their own hands—all year. Bailey stopped going.
"In college, that was the first time in my life I ever got an A or a B," she says. "I'd been a D student when I graduated high school."
At the University of Washington, "the whole world opened up to me." She discovered ethnomusicology, the study of music and culture from around the world. She followed it with tailoring and millinery at Seattle Central Community College while costume designing at (now-defunct) Black Arts/West. And she did hair.
"It was this little barbershop on 34th and Union," she says. "I saw a picture of these braids and said, I could do that." She rented a chair and charged $15 a head—until her customers started defecting to a newcomer downtown, a Nigerian woman who charged $10, was faster, and could do all kinds of traditional braids. Bailey befriended the woman and left the hair business. "I learned: I'm not gonna do African ever again. I'm gonna do African American."
A production manager at Black Arts/West mentioned Pratt Institute in New York, and Bailey was out the door—"I just needed a name." At Pratt, she got her BFA in industrial design, but she picked up her skill in needlework from an Italian Swiss woman in an abandoned elementary school in Brooklyn, where they both had studios. The woman had learned it as a student in an Italian Catholic boarding school, where orphans would embroider the bishop robes and church textiles in the basement at night to pay their way, while wealthier children slept upstairs. "She'd bring down food, dresses, ribbons to give them in exchange, and they'd beat the shit out of her, but they showed her how to do it," Bailey says. She learned without patterns, then improvising.
As a designer, Bailey thinks big—about mirrors for the whole body, not just the face; about body suspension systems in the home that relieve the relentlessness of gravity. She admires the Bauhaus. She wants to revolutionize daily life, not add handsome details. She makes her own clothes, crocheted rings of color for skirts and beaded hats like orbits hugging her head. (If she were white, she'd be Andrea Zittel, the art-world darling who designs clothing, furniture, a way of life. Bailey is like Zittel, but her designs are warmer and her ideas more eccentric.)
That's how Bailey started: making hats. African-influenced crowns, crocheted to look like bright, frozen waves cresting on top of the head. In 1980s New York one day, she saw an issue of Elle with black models clad in textiles and jewelry from Africa, and "I'd never seen a magazine put a black woman identified with Africa in it, so I Xeroxed my whole portfolio in black and white and sent it to the editor." Two days later, Bailey was lugging a box full of hats to the office, and for three years, her hats were featured in the magazine—finding their way into Spike Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing (worn by Samuel L. Jackson as DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy), Benetton ads, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and music videos. But "nobody was really into the statement—they were into the hats," Bailey recalls. "I said, I think I need to leave this, I'm becoming a hatmaker."
Bailey started hanging her crocheted circles on the wall in abstract patterns intended to be meditative. She wrote a story about a medicine woman from 17th-century Africa who notices her fellow tribe members are disappearing, so she follows them into slavery. Once arrived, she fakes her death, escapes into the American forest, and from cotton, crochets herself a magnificent tent where she can provide her people with spiritual deliverance back to Africa. Her name is Sistah Paradise, and it is crocheted across the front of her tent, which stands at the Northwest African American Museum—with the figure of Sistah Paradise at the door, a black mannequin wearing long eyelashes and a ceremonial crocheted dress bursting with freshly picked cotton.
"Wow. Wow," a guest at the museum said one recent afternoon, calling her friend over to see. They stood a while.
"My grandmother used to show me how to pick cotton," the other said. "This takes me back."
"Art has to be medicine," Bailey likes to say. It was the Chicago artist Nick Cave—he recently showed his eye-popping "soundsuits" at Seattle Art Museum—who encouraged her to combine her crocheted circles together into explosive knit collages, labyrinths that would crawl an entire section of wall. They have cosmic, synesthetic names like Static Station and C-Trane Express Track, forming vortexes and shooting stars and fingers of flame. Art as magic carpet: She calls it "Spell No. 9, Fibervelocitykinesis," those words crocheted on the tent, every inch of which is an adventure in style and color, from psychedelic to Muslim. Her signature stitch is a flowy line, like it's dripping. She calls it the liquid stitch.
"People don't make up their own recipes anymore, people don't experiment," she says. "How do you inspire yourself?"
Making it up, making something out of nothing, is Xenobia Bailey's work. She's a time traveler, a space remaker, an honorary member of Sun Ra's Afrofuturist "Arkestra," a spiritual adviser to figures like younger African American painter David Huffman's "traumanauts" on their journey to new worlds, but her work is DIY—ancient DIY, proto DIY. It happens one stitch at a time, and she says anyone can do it.
"My whole point is, it's 2011," she says. "We're supposed to be supernatural by now."