Arkansas Sketchbook

"97"

Kesha Lagniappe | 2017 | Clothing, thread

A few weeks before the yards of clothing stitched together were draped from the wooden underpinnings of the pavilion at The Bernice Garden, Kesha Lagniappe had clothing at her feet—two long patchwork tapestries of fabric, dissimilar textures and colors, one 24 feet long, the other 25 feet. It was a muggy day. There were a few older men sitting on a bench set deep in the greenery and talking quietly. But the clothing, and the stories she could tell about each and every garment, tore you from the scene and sent your mind elsewhere. She’d sewn them all together, and it was awful to look at them.

On the ground, there were work clothes. There were pajamas. There was a hijab. There was a blue shirt with a letter written on a sheet of notebook paper torn in two—“My hand has touched this shirt in my closet nearly every day for nearly two years now …”—stitched to the front. They were all pieces with unremarkable textures and patterns of everyday clothing. She knew all of their stories. Her own clothes were there, too. This was just half.

In total it was 97 feet—97 feet of clothing. She’d stitched it all together herself, the clothing of women she knew, who’d reached out to her privately, often through Facebook, and said, “I have something for you, if you’ll take it.” She said that it made her realize she wasn’t alone. She said the act of sewing was something like a release.

“I never thought that sewing, that motion of stitching, would give me such relief,” she says as she looks down on the clothing. “It was almost like magic when I was doing it. At first, I was like, Wow, this is really beautiful, and I felt bad. I was like, I shouldn’t think this is beautiful. Then I was talking to my friend, and she was like, No, it’s OK to turn something bad that happened to you [into something beautiful]. It means you’re healing from it.

So, what does it mean?

God, it’s so awful to say, but you have to say it: It’s all clothing that had been worn by women who’d been raped, who’d been sexually assaulted. There’s 97 feet of clothing stitched together to signify the 97 percent of rapists who are never convicted. There was something about seeing the fabric, the gauze, the lace, the only physical witnesses that would always be silent, pieces of those lives that had lived untouched and unwanted in closets alongside other pieces of clothing that didn’t have baggage or stigma of sexual assault woven into them, that made you just so sick, so mad. There’s a wedding veil in there, for God’s sake. There’s an Easter dress. But, as she says, no matter how difficult it is to talk about what it means, to hear the stories behind the clothing, that’s the whole purpose: to talk about it, to bring it to light.

“I felt alone for years because no one talks about it,” she says. “We’re told not to. But then, me talking about it, I realized it’s happened to so many women,” she says. “I just don’t feel as alone anymore, and I just feel this is something that needs to be talked about to fix it.” —jph

An opening reception will be held from 6-9 p.m., Friday, July 21 at The Bernice Garden.

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