Northern Star: Recent Work by Letitia Fraser

Vanessa & Jillian, oil on quilt, 36" x 48" (2018–2019).

Letitia Fraser graduated from NSCAD University last spring and, after a residency in Cape Breton at the Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design, has returned to Halifax to continue her art career.
She combines two distinct genres in her work: quilting and painting. Fraser, an African Nova Scotian whose family roots are in North Preston, has made it her mission to portray her community. Last spring she exhibited a large body of work at the Anna Leonowens Art Gallery as her graduating exhibition, which garnered a lot of attention. Her new self-titled exhibition at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery shows her commitment to continuing to show her community through her own lens.
Curated by the MSVU’s new director/curator Laura Ritchie, Letitia Fraser is a small exhibition highlighting how Fraser’s sense of her family and larger community, and her recognition of the importance of traditional knowledge and skills, continue to influence her painting. There are three portraits and two small quilts in this exhibition, plus didactic material to help viewers unfamiliar with it to understand the quilting process.
“Blue Magic” (2018–2019) shows an older woman braiding the hair of a young girl. The girl sits on the floor, between the legs of the woman (her mother or grandmother, perhaps) with a familiar look of patience. The woman braiding has an expression of quiet introspection, at once peaceful and pensive.
It’s a painting that is both very specific—these figures feel like they represent real people—and eternal. The material Fraser paints on (patterned fabric in eccentrically stitched together swatches, their fluid lines breaking the rigidity of the grid) suggests this is the sort of scene that recurs from generation to generation.
Aside from the figures the fabric is unpainted, Fraser uses the quilt as the background and setting for her portraits, rather than any depiction of a specific place. It is as if the quilt, representing family traditions and continuity, holds the two figures in place, and provides a sense of home.
“Lillian Downey” (2019) is a three-quarter length portrait of a woman who seems to be striding directly towards the viewer. Clad in a blue double-breasted suit with white lace decoration on the lapels, the figure exudes power and strength. Whether dressed for work, church or some event, in Lillian Downey, Fraser has evoked a powerful character that holds the viewer’s attention.
Unlike “Blue Magic” this work is not painted on a quilt but features instead a large close-up of a motif common in traditional quilts: the Northern Star, which had special connotations in African-American history as representing the symbolic promise of freedom at the end of the underground railway.
Fraser also is showing a small portrait of her grandmother, Rosella Fraser, whose quilts were an early inspiration for the young painter. “Mommay” (2019) is, like “Blue Magic,” painted on a quilted fabric.
Fraser also tries her hand at quilts themselves, in two works that accompany the paintings. Stars of the North is small quilt featuring three north star forms with vertical bars acting almost as frames, while For Lillian is a diamond pattern quilt fragment.
Much like embroidery samplers, these small quilts make the viewer look at the patterns in a focussed way that may not ever happen when faced with a functional quilt.
This exhibition is a welcome introduction to an artist at the beginning of what will likely be a long professional career, and it continues the MSVU Art Gallery’s long history of supporting emerging artists.
The MSVU also has a long history of community collaborations, and history and community are the subject of the project on view in the Mount’s main gallery, Africville: A Spirit That Lives On. This project, a revisiting of an exhibition first mounted in 1989, is a collaboration between MSVU Art Gallery, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, the Africville Genealogical Society and the Africville Museum celebrating the legacy and spirit of Africville.
This current exhibition marks the 30th anniversary of the first project and is updated with artwork, interviews, documents and films that both revisit the original project and detail the strides that have happened since in telling the important story of Africville and its community.
Northern Star runs until Nov. 3 and Africville until Nov. 10.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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