The Quilting Tradition
By Shantay Robinson
Harriet Powers was once a slave in rural Georgia, but her intricate quilts make her a celebrated artist today. Her story quilts depict biblical tales and local histories. She began exhibiting them in 1886 at the Cotton States and International Expo. Now her quilts, Bible Quilt, is at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Pictorial Quilt is at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Existing as a slave, bearing at least nine children and being subject to a racist and sexist society, Powers seems to have remained steadfast in her faith. The function of her quilts falls in line with story quilts of contemporary artists who are using this medium to express their own steadfastness in what they believe to be significant. Contemporary artistic quilts by black women artists allow us an understanding of those things that are important to the artists like sisterhood, female empowerment, and black feminine beauty.
In “The Freedom to Say What She Pleases: A Conversation with Faith Ringgold” Melody Graulich and Mara Witzling inform us that “All the narrators of Ringgold’s quilts are African-American women who speak with authority in their own voices.” A story quilt depicting a matriarch restaurateur named Aunt Jemima in Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima, speaks from a black feminist perspective, but Ringgold has also produced other politically charged story quilts like Flag Story Quilt where she uses text and African textiles that force us to reckon with the multi-ethnic fabric of the USA. The black feminist that Ringgold is, she, at one time, painted images based in black feminist sensibilities with oil paint on canvas. But as the Harlem resident began to speak a language that her community could understand, she became formidable. The book Tar Beach and the quilt Tar Beach 2, might be the works for which Ringgold is best known. And it is her relatability to her community and its people through quilting as a medium that have made her so well-known.
In “In Search of a Discourse and Critique/s that Center the Art of Black Women Artists,” Freida Tesfagiorgis states, “That Ringgold dares, as many African-American artists do, to retain or reclaim aesthetic values of African-American traditions, knowing that such qualities will be rejected and/or marginalized by the dominant art establishment, is the most immanent indication of her self-determination.” She subverts the Western art historical canon by asserting womanly “low” arts into masculine “high” art spaces. Quilting has also traditionally been viewed as a folk-art tradition of self-taught artists. Story quilts by Ringgold have been challenged by cultural norms for their medium, but they have endured because of their artistic integrity. She truly creates masterpieces that require great artistic and technical skill, as well as cognitive ability. Not only are they functional in their ability to relay narratives, they are aesthetically beautiful. Regarded more as a skill than an artistic talent, artists like Ringgold have undermined this notion by thrusting quilting into the mainstream Western art canon. Quilting artists blurry the line between “high” art and “low” art, and allow for artists who have been habitually marginalized to participate in the contemporary Western art world.
African Americans are not the inventors of quilts. The earliest known quilt dates back to an Egyptian First Dynasty c. 3400 BC. Fast forward several millennia and the lore goes that African Americans used quilts to share secret messages to travel through the Underground Railroad. While quilting was not a unique making of African American peoples, some of the African traditions transferred to African American quilt making. Using large shapes and bright colors, which were techniques used in Africa by textile creators for the purposes of identifying warring tribes and traveling hunting parties, African American quilt makers carry on these techniques. Tesfagiorgis writes in “In Search of a Discourse and Critique/s that Center the Art of Black Women Artists,” “Powers’ quilts are in fact, canonical works: they link African-American quilting traditions to African textile traditions (West and Central)…”
The traditional African textile usage of bright colors, asymmetry, and large shapes is seen in the quilt of the Gee’s Bend quilters. In 2002, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, an exhibition highlighting the work of these African American women quilters traveled to several museums around the country including the Smithsonian. The Gee’s Bend community is actually Boykin, Alabama, but it is known for the plantation owned by Joseph Gee. Folk-art historian William Arnett and his Souls Grown Deep Foundation helped organize several exhibitions of their work and continues to champion for them. These quilters do not conform to patterns that typically dictate European quilts. In addition to showing the stylistic proclivities of African American quilters in exhibitions, these quilt artists were given names. Their quilts accompanied identities which was not typical of the quilts pre-emancipation. While slaves might have been recognized as quilters, even to earn money from their slave masters, their identities weren’t attached to the quilts they made. The Gee’s Bend exhibition allowed for the many quilters working in this tradition to be recognized for the work they do.
In traditional African cultures, art is functional first. The masks and ceremonial costumes we see in art and historical museums takes away the full agency of the crafted masterpieces. These “artworks” were not meant to be encased behind glass or hung on walls. Traditional African art is meant to be used. That African artisans take the time to ornament the tools needed for daily life, speaks to the proclivities of African people. When even combs and sitting stools are ornamented in ways that they can become priceless works of art, speaks to the care and pride with which African peoples create ordinary objects. African American art exists because African art exists. The tradition of quilt making that has been passed down through generations of women might be considered a skill because quilts are generally thought to have some functional purpose but thinking about traditional African art helps us see that these African American artworks fall in line with African tradition through the function of use.
The art of Beverly Y. Smith, Bisa Butler, and Sherry Shine, emerging artists who use quilting as a medium to challenge identity politics and relay particular African American female narratives, speak to the functionality of quilts in both practical and theoretical ways. While each artist has a style respective of her individual aesthetic, they all create works that speak to the splendor and skill of the quilt making tradition. These emerging artists create bright, colorful, and tactile artworks that challenge the notion of what “real art” can be. Their artworks are founded on traditions handed down to them from mothers and grandmothers. While they can serve the function of keeping bodies warm in cold weather, they also serve the function of telling African American narratives in keeping with African artistic traditions. During slavery, women patch-worked quilts out of scraps of fabric to keep themselves and their families warm. At the same time as many quilt makers provided warmth for themselves and their family members through the production of quilts, they were also creating quilts that demanded significant skill and that succeeded in being aesthetically pleasing. The function of the quilt works in tandem with the beauty of them. Per Harriet Powers, the subject matter depicted in these quilts also serves a greater function. Powers’ was a telling of biblical stories and Ringgold’s is conveying narratives of contemporary culture. Both these women and these emerging artists surpass the conventional embodied function of quilts by offering narratives through them. Taken out of its context and even hung on a wall as decorative art, African American contemporary quilts still provide the function of telling stories. These story quilts serve a purpose greater than that of aesthetic or bodily pleasure.
While quilt artists attempt to create art that is true to their culture, black women artists who use quilting as their medium risk the possibility of not being taken seriously in high art culture. But in keeping with African American cultural aesthetics, they reclaim tradition and transcend the strictures of Western art culture, and are appreciated by the culture for which they create art. Because they might be operating outside of norms, their work might be looked upon with some skepticism, but the skill it takes to create these intricate artworks justifies their high art status. As contemporary quilt makers promote the tradition of quilt making as high art and use black women’s stories as subject in their quilts, they establish a tradition in art that appreciates the unique beauty and aesthetics of black women. As we move forward, we can look at The Quilting Tradition as an avenue for black women artists to use their creativity to express narratives important to them.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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