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This work consists of individually strung “Obama beads,”made from wound fragments of presidential campaign literature by the Kwetu Afrika Women’s Association Angels,a group of wives of Ugandan soldiers, under the leadership of Sanaa Gateja, who employed the beads in trinkets. Al Miller commissioned this group to create a large sculptural fabric that combines his own African-American quilt-making roots with African beading and weaving skills, reflecting on Barack Obama’s own American and African heritage. The artist’s symbolic reading of the work shifted throughout Obama’s tenure and beyond. Initially, before Obama’s successful election, each bead represented a tiny talisman that hoped for positive change—just as many forms of African art are made to appeal for positive outcomes. Combined into a textile, the beads read as 110,000 tiny prayers for change, expressing hope. This accumulation of meaningful materials echoes the weight of repetition seen in many African power-objects.
Today, Al Miller also considers that, like many African textiles, the work’s meaning continues to transform. African textiles often play a memorial function, celebrating past events and memorializing prominent people. “Obama cloths” bearing President Obama’s portrait, in many different designs, were worn in many African countries during the presidency, and they are still being worn today, memorializing President Obama, what he stood for, and how he is proudly celebrated in Africa, not least for being of partial African descent. Looking back on the past, memorializing, often entails celebrating what is lost, and also honoring those who have passed, because cloths incorporate a sense of history and the passing of generations. From today’s perspective, we can look backwards, and consider how President Obama might handle everyday events. Al Miller’s work thus reflects on the “change” he references in the title, from Obama’s election campaign to his end-of-term and beyond; the symbolism and readings of this work will continue to change as history unfolds.
The beaded work has absorbed history, and reflects it; like many African bead works, it connects the present to the past—and eventually will link to a shared communal, American, past that becomes ancestral. In the ancestral level, spiritually, finally, we are all united.