Master Jamaican Mat-Maker Sane Mae Dunkley

Friday, January 26, 2018

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Very quietly on December 29, 2017, Jamaica lost one of its greatest talents, with but a few individuals even knowing. The person in question was Sane Mae Dunkley — “Mama Lane” to those who knew her — though to me, she was simply Elaine.

I was on the island to collect some work from Elaine when she died, and to make arrangements for an upcoming trip, during which I was to give a talk on the work of an artist from Jamaica, Kemel Rankine, at the famed American Folk Art Museum on January 21, 2018. Elaine had been invited by the museum to demonstrate her mat-making technique, and, following this, I was to interview her in front of the audience about the truly phenomenal mats, tapestries and other works she made that were only just coming to attention. She had also been invited to participate in the Outsider Art Fair scheduled to take place January 18 - 21, 2018 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.

Some time ago, she came to know of my interest in folk art and popular culture, and approached me with a proposition to make one mat for me. Just one mat. I almost fell over when I saw the mat that she brought to me; it was done to such exquisite perfection. There were layers and layers of cloth and bursts of colour. Her work was notably rich and full. It might seem as though Elaine had arrived at her craft fully formed, but this was not the case at all. She, like my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and so many women I know, had always been making the most fantastic works of art for herself.

Through a series of interviews, I came to find out that Sane Mae “Mama Lane” Dunkley was born on April 28, 1954 in Buena Vista, St Elizabeth. “Mama Lane” was a term of endearment she cherished, as it was coined by a deceased son. She was given her grandaunt's name, after the grandaunt took her to be registered a few days after her birth at home. Her father had been away on farm work and she would not come to know him until she was nine years old. When she did meet him, she recalled him being distant and cold towards her. She was the fourth child for her mother, Ina Griffiths, who died at age 28 in 1958, when Elaine was only four years old. Her grandmother then gave her over to be raised by a cousin, in another district in St Elizabeth, a bauxite district, and she stayed with her cousin until she was 13 years old when she ran away to her maternal grandmother's house because of physical abuse by her cousin's husband. She was returned to her cousin's home, but again fled to her grandmother's a week later. This time she was allowed to stay.

Her relationship with her grandmother, however, was strained, Dunkley reported. Her grandmother never liked her much, as she did not care for Elaine's father. Elaine was very much beloved by her maternal grandfather, however, and she would light up whenever she spoke about him. She attended and completed Nain Primary School.

At 18, after witnessing the deaths of several cousins in her community from seemingly inexplicable illnesses, Elaine set out for Kingston and moved to Jones Town, where she lived most of her life. She was the mother of four children and had several grandchildren. Throughout her life, she would do a series of jobs as a shopkeeper, higgler, child-care worker, but she was most noted for being an outstanding cook. In fact, just days before her death she made and brought for me breakfast of callaloo, ackee and salt fish with roast breadfruit. Indeed, the food was amazing.

When I asked Elaine how she learnt to make the mats and tapestries, she said that she remembered seeing people back in St Elizabeth doing this. There was even a male cousin, she recalled, who made mats, patchwork and embroidery. “I used to watch my cousin all the time,” she told me, “to see how he was doing what he was doing. But I didn't much want to do what my cousin was doing because I used to see how people would walk all over the pretty things he made, and I just could not bear the thought of people walking all over my things like that, treating my things like they had no value. So, for a long time I stayed away from doing this work.”

In a sign of the times indicating how Jamaica is evolving with regard to how it views its artisans, there was quick recognition of Sane Mae's particular talents when her works started coming to both national and international attention. Her work was not only selected for the prestigious Outsider Art Fair, but one of her tapestries, the resplendent “Joseph Coat of Many Colours”, is reproduced in the Outsider Art Fair catalogue. I remember when she finished that tapestry she left a message on my phone saying, “Lord mi done! Mi done! Mi done the mat! I feel like I have given birth here! This thing is the size of a wall! My Joseph Coat of Many Colours!” Her grandson would later send me a very short video from his phone showing her running her hands lovingly over this large tapestry while clipping off the excess fabric.

Elaine was the consummate professional. With her, there were no excuses; her word was her bond. If she said she was going to meet someone at Half-Way-Tree, at 12:00 pm she was there by 11:30 am. If I told her I needed a mat August 15, it was done by August 13. She was absolutely the easiest person to work with and certainly one of the most creative.

Former Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Dr Veerle Poupeye had written of her: “Ms Dunkley is an outstanding Jamaican craft producer who keeps alive the long-standing African-Jamaican tradition of making patchwork items from repurposed fabric. While rooted in the tradition, she has given new life to what was a rapidly vanishing practice by producing both traditional and innovative patchwork products. Her craftwork is receiving attention as it illustrates traditional practices in African-Jamaican fibre arts and women's craft that had previously not received much recognition in Jamaica or internationally.”

Dr Cheryl Sterling, director of the Black Studies Programme at City College of New York, meanwhile, saw African retentions as the basis of modernist art within Dunkley's work. Sterling said, “Sane Mae Dunkley is in the tradition of an organic intellectual and artist. While she may be claimed by folk art what she does is beyond that rubric. This is art about folk — black folk. She is following in the line of an incredibly long tradition from Africa into the New World. Modern artists have used what she has done to create abstraction. Ms Dunkley intrinsically has this knowledge and takes it to the next level. She brings together the past and the present, weaving together the story of the Jamaican people and the personal story of her family. The work that Sane Mae Dunkley does transcends any limitations that have been placed on the category of 'folk art'.”

Elaine had so much to look forward to. So much. This is reflected in her two biggest tapestries, truly masterpieces, which she titled “Joseph Coat of Many Colours” and “The Garden of Hope.” I was so taken with the name of the latter I wanted to know how she'd come by the designation. She told me that, while watching television one night, something came on about Hope Gardens in St Andrew. She kept looking at the flowers and looking at the tapestry she was making, and saw a correlation. That was how she came up with the name of her work.

In time, her work would become more daring and innovative. Hats, earrings and bags were added to her repertoire. Shortly before she died, she showed me a heart-shaped mat and one that she'd made in the colours of the Jamaican flag. Here was someone totally at peace and in love with the work she was doing.

She was a strong believer in her God and in her church. Though I have asked myself many times why things happened like this, why Elaine will not be at the events scheduled for her to attend in New York, she no doubt would have said to me, and believed, that God knows best. All I can do is respect her beliefs.

Someone recently said to me that since I worked so closely with Elaine as she made her works, and knew her so well, I will have to lend her my voice, from time to time, to speak about her works. True enough. Though, for me, in so far as her work as an artist is concerned, her daughter Tanya Bishop and grandson Diego Levy really are the voices for her now.

Jacqueline Bishop is an associate professor in the School of Liberal Studies at New York University. She is also founder of the home-goods company Antillean, which works to encourage, develop, revitalise and sustain the folk and craft traditions of Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.

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