Monday, September 4, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 1: "African-American" style

why is it so problematic to assign labels to quilts?
Future quilt historians will have their work cut out for them, and it has everything to do with both benevolent and unfavorable efforts of their predecessors. If I could say one thing to future generations of quilt detectives it would be, "Ask a lot of questions about the quality of the information."

"Ask a lot of questions about the quality of the information."

The "stacked bars" quilt (pictured at top) is in my second book, "Modern Roots, Today's Quilts from Yesterday's Inspiration" (2016, C&T/Stash Books). In the book, I compare the quilt to one made by Jessie Pettway of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Pettway's quilt famously appeared on U.S. Postal Service stamps in 2006.

Given the stylistic similarities between the two quilts, it would be tempting to link them in other ways. The seller of my quilt called it African-American despite having no information about the maker. I bought the quilt, but not the story.

the real deal: a quilt made by Lucy Mingo, Gee's Bend, Alabama, 1979
Descriptions of quilts can be the stuff of legends, and that's the crux of the issue with provenance. Is the information available, or not? And if information is available, is it true? What is the source? 

In 2002, "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" caused a sensation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, when New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called the quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." That's when the sellers started getting dollar signs in their eyes. 

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

It was a perfect storm for growing misconceptions about quiltmakers of color in America. The most common misconception was that all African-American quilts looked like the quilts of Gee's Bend. In other words, improvisational, abstract quilts. The impicit message was the quilts represented a certain level of sewing skill among African-Americans. Very far from the truth, but others latched on to the misconception.

Prominent collectors published and exhibited vintage quilts with no provenance and attributed them as African-American, falsely identifying improvisational style as purely African-American. I saw an exhibition of quilts from the collection of Corrine Riley at the Bellevue Museum of Art in 2014, and can recall only one quilt in the exhibition of approximately 50 objects with maker's information. Problematic, to say the least. 

Improvisational style in American quilts did not originate in Gee's Bend, even though the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend had tremendous success with it. The rise of improvisational quiltmaking was more closely connected to the development of the textile and garment industries in America. I wrote about it in an article in QuiltCon Magazine in 2015. 

"Listen to the quilt! It will tell you all there is to know."

Sarah Nixon's quilt, c. 1935
Another quilt in my "Modern Roots" book is a blue and white "Indiana Puzzle" made by Sarah Nixon of Verona, New Jersey around 1935. Nixon, an African-American woman who was a housekeeper, made the quilt for the cute little girl who lived in the neighborhood, my Mom. It is worthy of note but almost goes without saying, Nixon's quilt is not improvisational.

Carolyn Mazloomi's quilt
Narrative, storytelling quilts seem to represent a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to African-American quiltmaking today. There is currently only one example in my collection, and that is "Spirit of Forgiveness" by Carolyn Mazloomi. Recently, Carolyn donated a large group of African-American quilts she collected to the Michigan State University Museum. A majority of the quilts were pictorial and told stories. Further enhancing their tremendous cultural value, the quilts also documented African-American history, information not found in U.S. History curriculum.

improvisational quilt, unknown maker, c. 1920-1940
Considering the number of loosely attributed, "African-American" quilts, historians could face an uphill battle. I hope there will be others like myself who come along and ask, "Is that true?" Our practice, and the burgeoning field of quilt history can embody all the available information without having it become the stuff of legends. As I like to say, "Listen to the quilt! It will tell you all there is to know."

1 comment:

  1. Totally off-topic, Bill; I peeked at Vol 3 of the "Quilt Folk" magazine today which was devoted to quilting in Hawaii. Granted, I didn't have time standing in line at Jo-Ann's to read the text, but there was not a single picture, NOT ONE, of the fabulous pieced quilts like you have been collecting.