Portrait of Xenobia Bailey by Daisy Chen

Xenobia Bailey’s career is as eclectic and colourful as the spiral crochet patterns that form a key part of her aesthetic. Having studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington and Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute, she went on to work as a costume designer for Black Arts West and learnt to crochet at the Greenpoint Cultural society in Brooklyn. Her crochet hats infiltrated pop culture in the 1980s, appearing everywhere from United Colors of Beneton advertisements, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, to Elle magazine. 

“Crochet works well for practicing my craft and developing the aesthetic. It is labor-intensive, but it becomes a meditation, like counting prayer beads”

Bailey’s first influence, however, was her mother – “She created a beautiful ambience with nothing. She’d get these afghans and quilts from the Salvation Army to adorn the house in a way that was like an art installation.” Bailey’s refers to her art practice as an ‘aesthetic of funk’, which celebrates the idiosyncratic, the improvised, and folk art traditions that were built on thrift and any scraps of material at hand.  

$ Bopped – flow Mandela cosmic tapestry of energy flow of charged currency (a minor event), 1999,  Hand crotchet, cotton, acrylic yarns, 5’8in. Image courtesy Stux Gallery

“There isn’t a commercialised or industrialised African-American aesthetic, it’s more of a craft, and it goes through the music, the poetry, the food and everything. There is a mysticism that surrounds our aesthetic. It’s important for African Americans especially to have a place of being and sense of presence’

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Tent (installation view, John Michael Kohler Arts Center), 1993; acrylic and cotton yarn and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Central to Bailey’s ‘aesthetic of funk’ is the mission to make something joyful from ‘the legacy of trauma’ central to the African-American experience: ‘we can make a joyful noise in that funk…From that garbage comes fertilizer, and that’s where fresh seeds sprout.”  Mothership 1: Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, which draws inspiration from Obeah healing rituals, is a striking example of the ways Bailey combines vibrant crochet, folk inspired patterns and ceremonial fabrics to create afrofuturist work that celebrates the cultural legacy of African American women. Her tent offers a space of sanctuary and solace, whilst evoking the dual nature of funk as both based in trauma but signifying joy: Bailey describes its title as referring to “Sistah Paradise, a fictional African medicine woman, or ‘Obeah,’ who was brought to the US as a slave… It’s a message of resistance, renewal, and racial pride through the process of crochet.”

Sistah Paradise: The Lead Mystical African (Haitian Aesthetic) American Folk Character, for rural, urban and suburban bedtime medicinal folktales and contemporary bedtime medicinal lullabies. Photography by Xenobia Bailey

Bailey has also created large scale artworks that translate her ‘aesthetic of funk’ into public spaces. Funktional Vibrations is a large scale mosaic that decorates the roof of 34thStreet – Hudson Yards station on the New York subway. A mystical, cosmic scene made of her signature mandalas, as well as light rays and shooting stars, Bailey wants this work to function as an ‘activator; it’s not only to be pretty, but to inspire’. 

Xenobia Bailey’s blog is available to view here. See below for a video of Bailey discussing her project “Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk”