Skip navigation links

July 24, 2018

Karen Hampton: Prayers for Flint

Karen Hampton is a textile artist and assistant professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design in the College of Arts and Letters. She spent this past academic year as an Artist-in-Residence in the Critical Race Studies Artist Residency and was selected to receive this year’s King-Chavez-Parks Visiting Professors Program award. As part of her residency, she mounted a solo exhibition of her work at the MSU Union Art Gallery and participated in outreach to the community. She also taught two courses, lectured and gave workshops to classes in the College of Arts and Letters. Her work is steeped in oral history and based upon ethnographic research technics.

I seek to break stereotypes and address issues of colorism and race by responding to the under-representation of black and brown histories in the American historical record. Every time my needle pricks the fabric, I’m laying a little bit of intent to address the issues of race in society. 

During my residency, I spent three months traveling back and forth to Flint to try to understand the city’s water crisis and the emotional effect it was having on residents. What I found was in order to understand Flint, I had to understand the history of the auto industry, the UAW, Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids. 

What I learned that stood out the most to me was the art in Flint. Flint probably has more art per square foot than any other city in Michigan, held in the collections of Mott-Warsh Gallery and the Flint Institute of Arts. Everything about Flint surprised me. I found that I just had to be quiet and let the story come.

“Prayers for Flint” is my story and expression of thanks I feel towards the Michigan people who shared their lives and stories with me. These are good people who have worked hard, taken care of their families and believed in the ‘working class dream.’ They have gotten a bum deal. Massive layoffs and now they have to cope with the polluted water of the Flint River and the poison housed within the pipes. I felt that what I could give them were my prayers.

I dyed the fabric the colors of the polluted water in Flint, and a mask that is repeated in the corners of the fabric is an initiation mask that I saw on display at the Flint Institute of Arts.

I use past and present symbols to tell a story that reflects on heritage and remembers the past. The mask is there as a reminder of African heritage and to hold the dreams for a better Flint. The bottle tree in the center of the work is symbolic of the bottle trees found in the American South, primarily on African American homesteads, for protection, and the heart-shaped symbol is a representation of ‘Sankofa,’ which comes from the Yoruba culture of West Africa and means to remember your past so you do not have to repeat it.

I want my students to start figuring out what the things are that activate them...and that letting that flow from your subconscious to your conscience, that is incredibly stimulating. That’s where creative problem solving comes from. That’s how you build leaders.

Read more about the The Critical Race Studies Residency Program

Header Artwork:

Karen Hampton
Prayers for Flint
cotton/linen, pigment dyed + natural dyes of tea & tobacco and dye sublimation printed, machine sewn
66 in x 90 in