“Fish Pieta” by Christopher Myers

Close Looks: "Fish Pieta" by Christopher Myers

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Audio Description of Fish Pieta by Christopher Myers

This brightly colored textile panel is nearly five and a half feet tall and four feet wide. At the upper and lower borders it is attached, with five beige fabric bands, to medium-brown stained wooden dowels that have ornately turned ends. Although the panel hangs close to the wall, at the left and right edges you can see that the colorful fabric continues around the edges onto the back.

Against a background of green, yellow, and purple fabrics appears a human figure, seated at a three-quarters angle to the viewer with the head in profile. In the figure’s arms and across the lap is a large fish. The top of the figure’s head is a few inches below the panel’s upper boundary, and the bottom edge of the panel crops the figure at the ankles, so in other words, the figure occupies the full vertical length of the piece. The fish extends across the full width of the panel, its mouth a few inches from the right and the end of its tail even closer to the left. The human figure is placed a little bit left of the vertical center and the majority of the fish’s body is at the horizontal center.

A bit more about the image’s background here: the green, yellow, and purple fabrics have been cut into rectangular shapes. The purple fabric appears as a narrow vertical band that extends all the way from the top to the bottom of the panel at the left side. It is about one-fifth of the overall width of the panel. The four-fifths of the panel to the right of the purple band is divided horizontally between green, which covers the top one-fourth of the remaining background area, and yellow, covering the remaining three-fourths of that area. The green is a color that might be described as spring green, and while the hue is bright, the fabric itself is somewhat plain. The yellow, another bright and sunny hue, appears to be made of the same type of cloth as the green. The purple, however, is a deep, rich, lustrous plum-colored fabric, embroidered with shimmering flowers and curving stems and leaves.

The human figure’s skin, visible in the head, neck, and hands, is made of chocolate brown fabric, much plainer than that of the purple band, but with a bit of a reflective sheen, especially when compared to the green and yellow background fabric. The grace and elegance with which the artist composed the figure’s head, neck, expression, and pose, and the robed garment and gold bracelet suggest that it is a woman. Her head and neck are rendered in profile, with short curls on the top and back of her head made of the same brown fabric, and the contours of her nose, lips, and chin visible. With a small, white, crescent-shaped piece of fabric, the artist indicated her downward cast right eye.

Her robe is a vivid red, the color of ripe tomatoes. Its fabric appears flat, as it absorbs light. The robe’s collar, split at the throat, is made of an orange fabric that appears similarly somewhat flat. At the outer edge of the figure’s right arm (that is, at our left), there is a thin strip of rich bronze velvet, ornamented with a pattern of irregular ovals and paisleys stitched in dark blue and gold thread, and with blue- and bronze-colored sequins. This same ornate fabric appears along the lower half of the woman’s body, also at her right side, and in an elongated triangle at her left armpit as well. The red and bronze fabrics covering the lower half of the woman’s body are composed in what seem to be abstracted curving forms, but the curves can also be read as the boundaries between light and shadow, projecting and receding body parts. If read in this way, the red areas would indicate her knees, projecting forward and the bronze area would suggest that her right lower leg is bending backwards, perhaps in an effort to support the heavy weight of the fish’s body. In this considerably wider expanse of bronze velvet, more of its ornate features are visible, including areas of wavy brown velvet stripes alternating with transparent stripes where the yellow fabric of the background is visible.

To reinforce the sense of the fish’s weight, the artist represented the woman’s hands with fingers splayed wide. Her left hand — with one thumb shown in a deep orange to indicate its underside — supports the fish’s neck. Her right hand and forearm, its wrist adorned with a gold bracelet in the same yellow fabric as the background, holds the fish’s belly. The two arms are placed wide apart — the right arm overlaps with the plum-colored band of fabric at left— which helps to emphasize the size and weight of the fish, even heavier perhaps, since she appears to be raising the fish off the stable surface of her lap to present it to us.

The fish’s body is made up of eight different blue and purple fabrics, and a small piece of yellow fabric to indicate its eyelid. The majority of its body is composed of a heavy, blue and white fabric, with a pale blue and white pattern of hexagons and squares in its background, over which in medium and darker blue shimmering threads are embroidered large, medium-sized, and small flowers, each of which has a round center and twelve petals in alternating hues of lighter and darker blues. Among the flowers are stitched scrolling vines in a medium blue. The circular and curving shapes accentuate the curving contours of the fish’s body and tail.

The fish’s mouth is indicated with two thin bands of fabric, one navy blue batik and one fuchsia. Its eye (surrounded with that small piece of yellow fabric) is made of a teardrop-shaped piece of navy blue fabric with polka dots. Another thin band of the navy blue polka dotted fabric represents its gill. Along the long, curved arc of the fish’s back appears more of the blue batik fabric, here wide enough to show that there are gray and tan areas with a grid-like pattern in the fabric’s overall design. About halfway between the fish’s head and tail there are two fins, made with parallel bands of solid fabrics in black, the same fuchsia as the mouth, lavender, and a deep bluish purple. One fin extends upward, toward the woman’s right arm, and the lower fin extends downward across her right thigh. The fish’s tail alternates strips of fabric that include the embroidered fabric of the body, the blue batik, and the navy polka dot fabrics. In the tail, the strips of navy polka dot fabric are expansive enough to tell that it is translucent.

Close inspection shows hand stitching at the seams between the different fabrics. In some places, rippling in the fabric shows where the stitches are that attach the various pieces to the background. In the yellow background fabric close to the bottom, the pattern of more evident ripples indicates that the panel was once rolled around the wooden dowels.

On first glance, I witness a woman holding an upturned fish composed of at least eleven different types of fabric — varying by fiber, texture, dye color, and weave structure.

Gazing upon the array of textures curated by Myers’s fabric imparts a tactility to my sight. As I look, I imagine that the uniform surfaces of the background feel smooth, while the velvet of the woman’s gown invites a softer touch that contrasts with the seemingly rough and bumpy exterior of the fish belly.

Lingering with my glances, I notice the embroidery and dye work that lends Fish Pieta vibrancy, detail, and form. Scales, gills, fins, and eyes appear through a juxtaposition of evenly dyed surfaces and striated, embroidered patterns.

Curvilinear patterns echo across the stems of magenta flowers, the azure spirals of fish scales, and the arching back of the woman, all imparting a kineticism to the piece. Finally, the stitchwork completes this commitment to curvature, arching and penetrating against the grid-like warp and weft of fabric.

Ultimately, I am left with a sense of weight. The weight of the fish, the weight of the woman’s downcast eyes, the weight of the fabric as it hangs suspended in the air.

Amrut Mishra is a Graduate Fellow at the Ackland Art Museum and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication who researches contemporary fabric and textile art.

Tapestry with an androgynous Black person sitting in the center, holding a limp blue fish in their arms. The person’s face is in profile, and they are looking down towards the fish. The background consists of rectangular sections of fabric in colors of purple, green, and yellow. The person wears a robe of red, orange, and brown fabric. The fish consists mainly of a blue and white patterned fabric of flowers and swirls with pink, purple, and black fins.

Christopher Myers, American, born 1974, Fish Pieta, 2020, appliqué fabric, 64 1/2 × 48 in. (163.8 × 121.9 cm). Purchased through the generosity of Schwanda Rountree, Kate Nevin, and Libby and Lee Buck, 2021.18. © Christopher Myers.

This wall hanging by Christopher Myers is complicated yet accessible, deceptively simple in its bold outlines and in the seemingly mismatched combinations of its fabrics. Every shape and line is essential. Its figures—a person and a fish—are legible yet mysterious. Viewers may bring to it an array of associations. Its title evokes a Biblical scene; rather than Jesus, a fish is depicted on the lap of a woman. The bowed heads on both figures lend the image a mournful mood—is this a commentary on environmental degradation? A mermaid now transformed into a woman?

Because I am a historian of African art, this work evokes for me a very specific West African genre: the Asafo flag. This association adds layers of potential meaning, because these appliqué banners are associated with the Fante ethnic group of coastal Ghana. This region has an exceptionally long history of interaction with Europeans; Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, British, and other Europeans have plied the coast since the mid-fifteenth century,

establishing trading houses and forts that still stand today. Fante artists were astute observers of European objects, including the flags and standards that unfurled from ships’ masts and were carried by soldiers. They adapted this form to their own artistic styles and symbols of status, creating flags for military units (Asafo) that served as civic organizations and community defense forces. Christopher Myers adapts the bold colors and shapes of the Asafo flags. This image contains histories of intercultural contact, of African innovation, and of the persistence of cultural practices through and beyond nearly a century of colonial domination by Britain.

Victoria Rovine is Professor in the Department of Art and Art History and Co-Director of UNC-Chapel Hill African Studies Center. She specializes in African art with a focus on textiles and dress practices in West Africa.

Alice Auma, who led a futile millenarian peasant rebellion against the Ugandan government in 1986-87, was working as a fish seller when Lakwena, an Acholi manifestation of the Catholic Holy Spirit, possessed her body. So that may explain the big fish. But was the fish a major animal in her and her followers’ spirituality? I’m guessing the fish is Myers’s invention, rather than an attempt to represent Auma’s actual beliefs. It dominates the piece with its size and the spiral patterning of its fabric, radiating non-human, pre-mammalian power. It magnifies, distorts, and seizes that which it comes into contact with namely, Alice’s hands. Whereas in most Madonna paintings Mary’s face claims as much of our attention as

Christ’s, here Alice’s face is recessed, shrunk, and flattened. She seems violently possessed by the being in her arms, as the Virgin in the original Pietà does not. At the same time, there is serene “pity”and grief in this piece, as in Michelangelo’s sculpture—grief, presumably, for an African natural/spiritual world besieged by modernity.

Dave Pier is Associate Professor in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies. He writes about music and cultural politics, mainly in Uganda. 

I can really appreciate this piece not only for its aesthetics but also the source of the artist’s inspiration. I recently found out that I’m a descendant of the Akan people in Ghana so the inspiration for this piece only drives me to seek out a deeper understanding. I’m one that loves African textiles; the patterns in them tell a story of their own. A quilt becomes a novel; it’s rich, brilliant, and spiritual. The artist even incorporated the colors of the contemporary Ghanaian flag in the composition: red, yellow, and green.

Without giving it any thought, one may think that the subject is going to prepare a fish which is what one might expect: an art piece showing a woman (or man) ready to prepare the “catch of the day” for supper. However, the way the subject is embracing

the fish tells a completely different story. The fish’s body appears lifeless, while she looks down on it with a sense of sympathy, sorrow, and compassion. While the piece is a reference to Michelangelo’s Pietà, the relationship between the subject and fish is a far-cry from the obvious correlation of Mary and her son, Jesus. This fish isn’t one that was caught; this fish was found in this state. Perhaps it is collateral to the destructive footprint that humankind has left, and continues to leave, on nature. She isn’t mourning the fish so much as what the fish represents and is a part of.

Jason Woodberry is a visual artist based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • What do you see? 
  • Pay attention to the materials and textures used and describe the fabrics and their organization. What draws your eye? 
  • The artwork is titled Fish Pieta. In Christian art, a pietà represents the Virgin Mary cradling the body of the dead Jesus. Knowing that, what new questions or observations come to mind? How, if at all, does that change your perception of the piece? 
  • This artwork is inspired in part by Asafo flags, with roots in the Fante culture of Ghana beginning as early as the late 1700s. Often commissioned for military captains, a flags’ imagery alludes to proverbs and carries symbols of power and wealth. What associations do you have with flags? How is this artwork similar to or different from the flags that come to mind? 
  • Myers has stated that in this tapestry, he was thinking of Alice Lakwena (also know as Alice Auma), the leader of a religious group in the north of Uganda during the 1980s. Read an article about Alice Lakewena.  
  • Read more about Christopher Myers’s other current textile work featured in the news 
  • Check out his children’s book illustrations at the Chapel Hill Public Library or other libraries.  
Jubilee (“Oloba”) Adire Cloth
Workshop of Diko Compound, 1965
Workshop of Diko Compound, Nigeria, Yoruba culture, Jubilee (“Oloba”) Adire Cloth, c. 1965, starch-resist dyed, plain-weave cotton, 64 × 76 13/16 in. (162.6 × 195.1 cm). Ackland Fund, 2019.17.1. Click image to see uncropped.
If There Had Been a Pool of Water it Would Have Reflected Us (Peter Norton Family Christmas Project 1998)
Jim Hodges, 1998
Jim Hodges, American, born 1957, If There Had Been a Pool of Water it Would Have Reflected Us (Peter Norton Family Christmas Project 1998), 1998, fabric (blanket), 52 x 72 in. (132.1 x 182.9 cm). Anonymous Gift, 99.7. © Jim Hodges. Click image to see uncropped.
Quilt (Lazy Gal/Housetop variation)
Irene Williams, 2004
Irene Williams, American, 1920-2015, Quilt (Lazy Gal/Housetop variation), 2004, found textiles, 94 x 79 in. (238.8 x 200.7 cm). Gift of the Arnett Collection and Ackland Fund, 2010.52.8. Click image to see uncropped.
Prayer Mat
Unidentified artist, late 18th century
Unidentified artist, Indian, Mughal, Prayer Mat, late 18th century, silk embroidery on quilted cotton, 41 x 29 3/16 in. (104.1 x 74.2 cm). Ackland Fund, selected by The Ackland Associates, 96.5. Click image to see uncropped.
Interior with Sugar Talk
Shari Urquhart, 1977
Shari Urquhart, American, 1944-2020, Interior with Sugar Talk , 1977, mixed-media tapestry, 81 x 108 1/2 in. (205.7 x 275.6 cm). The Carol and Arthur Goldberg Collection, 2012.38.4. © 2021 The Estate of Shari Urquhart and Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art.