By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News
In 2009, Torreah “Cookie” Washington and her mom, Martha Moore, were at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., to celebrate one of Cookie’s greatest artistic achievements: Her fabric art was part of an exhibit for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
But Moore was hesitant to enter.
“When I was a little girl, we weren’t allowed in that building,” she explained. “We had to go in the back door like the janitors.”
The historic significance of the moment was immense for Cookie: “I am a patriot in the purest sense of the word. Every man I have ever loved was in the armed services.”
She attended her first protest march as a toddler in a stroller and considers her art to be her social justice work – her ministry: “I believe in the promise of America, and I will work my whole life to see that that promise is kept.”
Cookie’s artistic vision includes fables, myths and icons that precede enslaved people being brought to what is now the United States. She said she’s a “way-shower.”
“You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from, even if it’s a fable,” she pointed out.
Her needles pluck strong Black women from history: Calafia, the namesake of California who inspired the Conquistador Hernan Cortes; the Black Madonna; and Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom.
“She is the one who is with you in your darkest hour. … who faces disaster with you an …leads you out,” Cookie said.
She learned that since A.D. 800, way before the sanitized Disney version, there were mermaid stories.
Black mermaids were powerful punishers and grantors of wishes. She was captivated by the true story of Charleston’s “Mermaid Riot.” In 1867, 500 people mobbed a store to set a mermaid free. She swam away in a flooded street.
At her current exhibit at Brookgreen Gardens’ Lowcountry Center – on view until Nov. 26 – her artistry is striking. These decidedly are not your grandma’s quilts, which, she says, “are usually the one your dog ends up giving birth on.” This is fabric art enriched with embellishments: beads, words, feathers, metallic threads: “I am interested in making art that stirs your soul and makes you think, makes you feel something and makes you exuberantly happy. I am not at all interested in making art that matches your couch.”
Also striking is Cookie’s commentary. Emily Abedon described Cookie’s art as expressing her personal journey through love, pain, death and rebirth and “a return again and again to a belief that collective human righteousness can create a more just and beautiful world.”
A poem Emily wrote inspired Cookie’s “A Piece of Peace.” In it she writes, “I wish I could do that, you said, give someone a piece of not being scared. Everything about your wish speaks for the way you live your life. …” That message was like a ray of sun through the fog of fear that had settled around me. Beauty and justice shined through: “Through the choppy seas of serious challenges and lessons for me this year, God has allowed my hands and heart to continue to create fiber art. … With each stitch, I whisper a prayer of gratitude – for one more day and one more opportunity to give back to my beloved community.”