They Want To Be Free
A sermon preached by Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close
Sunday 13 August 2023
I was delighted to find that when the series of summer sermons focusing on our Art Exhibition, ‘To be Free’ was agreed, the quilt by Jeffrey Gibson was not immediately claimed by one of the PPs, so it was available for me to preach about. It is the one exhibit from the exhibition that particularly took my eye, once all the pieces had been installed. I was drawn to it by the figure that appears in it, which I later learned was a small representation of a statue, referencing one of Gibson’s earlier works. I thought it looked like Morbius, from a Dr. Who story entitled ‘The Brain of Morbius’, or even one of the Yetis in ‘The Web of Fear’. Small things amuse small minds!
When I took time to look at it closely, I discovered intricate patterns and symbolism which drew me in and reading the Legend that goes with it, I discovered that Gibson is a Choctaw-Cheroke artist, a Native American who began making quilts in 2018, inspired by the Southern American tradition of quilt making, and the quilts that his grandmother made. In this particular quilt, Gibson references some of his earlier artworks and popular culture, striving to expand on the repertoire used by Native artists. Commenting on his work as a quilter he explains:-
“The quilt format allows me to literally stitch together experiences of my own into something that represents, generosity, comfort, warmth and in the tradition of quilts – time.”
Doing due diligence, I discovered that Gibson’s work fuses his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, and his experience of living in Europe, Asia and the USA with references that span club culture, queer theory, fashion, politics, literature, and art history. The artist’s multi-faceted practice incorporates painting, performance, sculpture, textiles, and video, characterised by vibrant colour and pattern. He combines intricate indigenous artisanal handcraft – such as beadwork, leatherwork, and quilting – with narratives of contemporary resistance, in protest slogans and song lyrics.
The words ‘They want to be Free’ are a repeating motif in this quilt, juxtaposed with other images. The words appear the right way round, upside down, and reversed – given his heritage, Jeffrey Gibson is ideally placed to comment authentically on the experience of Native Americans and all other indigenous cultures, that have been oppressed. The unfortunate thing for us is that it is European nations who have been the ones most culpable. The indigenous people of South America, the USA, Canada, Africa, and Australia have all suffered at the hands of Europeans, looking for ‘freedom’ in other countries. Nations who espouse freedom and are the ones who have more often than not, deprived others of this illusive ‘commodity’.
With Gibson’s quilt as my starter for ten, I found myself considering the subject of ‘freedom’ and realised that it is a multifaceted thing. In Western Cultures, as I have already noted, freedom is something to be cherished and prized above all else. There are so many types of ‘freedom’ ranging across the whole of human experience – Academic Freedom, Economic Freedom, Freedom of Religion and Political Freedom to name but four, yet however many freedoms there are, and however much we want to be free, autonomous beings, living in a free society, one fact still seems to apply – freedom is not something all have in equal measure. Jesus ironic comment in Mark’s Gospel could be applied to ‘freedom’:
‘For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’
Those who have most freedoms, are usually the ones who are fortunate economically or through privilege. If a person has a good salary, or a good pension; if a person has a good job and is of good standing in the wider community; if a person has been able to buy property; then the amount of freedoms they enjoy, will be significantly different to those without these advantages. Freedom is not a luxury item for the privileged and the entitled, they have it in abundance; but more choice for one person, one section of society, often means less choice for others.
What is true for individuals is true in the world – those with political clout and economic muscle, maintain and increase their freedoms, to the detriment of those without these useful powers. We only have to read the paper, listen to the radio, or watch the television news, to know this is the case and to find examples in the way nations deal with each other.
The thing is, in order for the majority to enjoy more freedoms, the minority need to reign in the power and control they have over freedom. In Romans 14 Paul writes about this in regards to faith, arguing that Christians should take into account their fellow Christians’ faith sensibilities and not trample upon them. As Joe Bonamassa a noted blues guitarist sings “Just ‘Cos You Can, Don’t Mean You Should”
Freedom evolves and is fluid, sometimes people have agency, other times they do not. Lots of people don’t have any control in their lives, enjoy no freedoms, and this is something that should concern us all, and needs to be addressed. All too often individuals, societies, and governments, make excuses for the fact that many have limited freedoms, blaming them, rather than arranging things in such a way that they can enjoy the same freedoms as their fellows.
By this circuitous route I am returning to Jeffrey Gibson’s quilt. His quilt – all quilts are made up of individual squares which are sown together, to make it complete. Human societies are made up of individuals, stitched together by reciprocity and the concern and compassion, individuals and groups have for the weak and the marginalised. As I stared at Gibson’s quilt, I also noted that stitches circle around the individual squares that make up the whole, they are doubly stitched – remove this stitching, from the quilt will mean it has less structural integrity. Remove the stiches which hold the squares together, and the quilt will be a ‘higgledy-piggledy’ pile of squares, on the floor.
So, it is with ‘freedom’ – if mutuality, and regard for other people’s needs are removed, then society separates out into individuals, who compete for their freedoms, sometimes in temporary cooperation with others, who share a fleeting common interest. Freedom becomes a commodity, not a human right. To ensure freedom for all, or more freedom rather than less for all, there have to be checks and balances – those with the power have to voluntarily limit their choosing and freedoms. When this doesn’t happen, it seems to me, that this is the role of Governments who are elected to ensure that all flourish with maximum freedoms, not just an elite minority.
In addition to that, countries also need to cooperate – not compete, or dominate – for there are so many problems facing our world that need addressing – together. Failure to do this, will ultimately take away ‘freedom’, from everyone.