African-American Quilts: Two Perspectives, SC Hollander

Tags: African Americans, Museum of American Folk Art, Cuesta Benberry, AfricanAmerican, African textiles, visual evidence, exhibition, American quilting, African-American quilts, Maude Wahlman, Maude Southwell Wahlman, slave women, block construction, quiltmaking, patchwork quilt, Freedom Marches, Wahlman, socioeconomic group, Freedom Quilting Bee, Harriet Powers, quilt styles, Great American Quilt Festival, African designs, American quilt, American quilts, Carole Harris, African design, quilt history, John Michael Vlach, Stacy C. Hollander, University Press of Virginia, Dutton Studio Books, African-American, Museum ofAmerican Folk Art, Antebellum South, social activities, synthetic fabrics, contemporary African art, patchwork quilts, Kentucky Quilt Project,Inc., weaving, The Clarion
Content: ecently there has been an R explosion of interest in American quilting. Scholars have explored quilts by chronology, region, construction, and materials. They have looked at the overall history, they have focused on singular traditions. One important and complex area of inquiry that has emerged over the last decade is the study of quilts and other textiles made by African Americans. From May 12 to 16, 1993, as part of "The Great American Quilt Festival 4" at Pier 92 on the Hudson River, the Museum of American Folk Art will present two important exhibitions devoted to quilts made by AfricanAmerican quiltmakers. Both exhibitions represent many years of research onthe partoftheirrespective curators-- Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman and Cuesta Benberry-- and offer different African- aspects of the history of AfricanAmerican quilting in the United States. American Whileoneexhibitionexploresthe African antecedents of some AfricanQuilts: American quilting traditions,the other presents the broad spectrum ofquilting by African-American quiltmakers from Two the nineteenth century through the present day. Perspectives Itis notthe purpose ofthis article to paraphrase the thoughts and writings of two scholars eminently STACY C HOLLANDER qualified to represent their own findings. Nor is it my aim to endorse one perspective over another. It is my hope that this brief discussion will encourage people to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to experience for themselves the dialogue that continues to evolve in this field. As an observer with an interest in American quilt history, I am left, after reviewing the thoughtful material of both historians, with a strong conviction that neither line of inquiry ultimately negates the other. The fine focus applied by one is partofthe story told by the other. However, the attention paid to the African design qualities of some quilts has captured the imagination of the quilt world almost to the exclusion of all other aspects of African-American quiltmaking. But there remain questions and inconsistencies that suggest there is more than one way to view a quilt and a great deal of work still to be done. The more
information we bring to this material, the deeper is our understanding and appreciation of the incredible complexity ofhistorical,cultural,and emotional forces that shape every aspect of the creation of these quilts and our response to them. In 1976, Gladys-Marie Fry wrote a monograph on the life of Harriet Powers, whose two Bible quilts must be included among the United States' greatest cultural treasures. She discovered a corollary between the
Wahlman has been one
of the most eloquent
proponents of the study
of African design
technique and imagery of these two quilts and the appliquй tradition of the Fon people of Dahomey, West Africa, now the Republic of Benin. During the following two years John Michael Vlach and Mary Twining noted the seeming retention of two African textile techniques in work by African Americans, namely strip piecing and appliquй.' By 1980, the first exhibition of African-American quilts had been organized by Maude Wahlman and John Scully for the Yale School of Art Gallery. The purpose of the exhibition was to pinpoint specific characteristics of quilts made by African-American quiltmakers that were similar to African-made textiles. In the enthusiasm that followed, the visual characteristics quickly came to be generally viewed as the criteria for defining an African-American quilt. African designs, techniques, and symbolism as antecedents for the quilting aesthetic of African-American quilters became the primary focus for ensuing articles, exhibitions, catalogs, and symposia. Dr. Wahlman,who has been one of the most eloquent proponents of the study of African design derivations in this body of work, writes in the introduction to herforthcoming book,Signs and Symbols:African Images in AfricanAmerican Quilts:
BIBLE SCENES QUILT Made by a member of the Drake family Thomaston, Georgia 1900-1910 Appliquйd cotton ?6Ѕx 71" Collection of Shelly Zegart
Similar designs in African quilted textiles and African-
FREEDOM QUILT Jessie Telfair Parrot, Georgia; 1980 Pieced and appliqued cotton and synthetic fabrics 73x 85" Collection of Shelly Zegart
American quilts are coinciden-
African Americans. In the course of
tal, due to the technical process
her continuing investigations she has
of piecing which reduces cloth
interviewed at least 500 quilters and
to geometric shapes--squares
seen thousands of quilts. The results
and triangles. All these
have formed the basis for her many
techniques--piecing, appliquй,
contributions to the study of the Afri-
and quilting--were known in
can roots of quilts made by African
Africa, Europe, and the United
States, yet these African-
In 1989, Dr. Wahlman published
American quilts are often pro-
two articles in The Clarion that
foundly different from Euro-
detailed some of the results of her
pean or Anglo-American quilts.
research.3 At that time, Dr. Robert
The difference lies in histor-
Bishop approached her with the idea of
ically different aesthetic princi-
organizing an exhibition for the
ples, with both technical and 'Museum of American Folk Art using
religious dimensions.2
quilts by living African-American
quiltmakers that she would identify for
Dr. Wahlman's research began the Museum's collection. The purchase
in 1977 when she was a graduate stu- of the quilts would be supported by a
dent at Yale. She had already published matching grant from the National
one book on contemporary African art Endowmentfor the Arts.
that included an examination of Afri-
This past year I had the oppor-
can textiles. With the support of Rob- tunity to view Cuesta Benberry's
ert Farris Thompson, her advisor at exhibition "Always There: The African-
Yale,Wahlman began an exploration of American Presence in American
possible connections between those Quilts," which was organized under the
textile traditions and quilts made by auspices of The Kentucky Quilt Proj-
ect, Inc. Louisville, Kentucky. In the exhibition and accompanying catalog, Benberry was the first to publicly question the existence of the "AfricanAmerican" quilt as the only or even the major quilt expression of African Americans. She proposed that there was no "typical" African-American quilt, but a diverse body of work influenced by factors that included region, education, training, socioeconomic group, and period. She further advocated that the work of African Americans was not separate from the mainstream of American quilting and that African Americans, present in America since the first slaves arrived in the seventeenth century, had in fact participated in the formation of that mainstream. As a result of the exhibition organized by Cuesta Benberry,the Museum recognized a unique opportunity to bring together these two different areas offocusfor the first time in one space. Quilt history has been Cuesta Benberry's "absorbing interest" for
PIG PEN Log Cabin variation Pecolia Warner Yazoo City, Mississippi C. 1982 Cotton, linen, and synthetic fabrics 81x 81" Museum of American Folk Art Gift of Maude Wahlman 1991.32.3
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over thirty years. During that time she has collected an astounding archive of material relating to quilting and has generously shared her knowledge with curators, quilt historians, quilters, and the public. She writes that her interest became a "passion" when she began her investigations into AfricanAmerican quilt history many years ago. In the introduction to the catalog that accompanied her exhibition, Benberry indicts the single-mindedness of the direction of earlier research: Scholars located a small group of quilts profoundly different visually from the accepted aesthetic of traditional American patchwork quilts. These idiosyncratic quilts from black women of rural southern and similar backgrounds were examined closely for stylistic variances, construction techniques, fabric color choices and symbolic design references. Most exciting of all was a linkage between the black American quilts and African design traditions, believed to indicate an unconscious cultural memory in the quiltmakers of their far-away motherland. AfricanAmerican quilts became one of America's newest forms of exotica. Continued scrutinization of the quilts resulted in the promulgation of a number of theories which were immediately accepted as fact. Visual criteria for recognizing AfricanAmerican quilts (stitch length, asymmetrical organization of quilt patches, size of the patches, frequent use of bright colors) were devised. Longestablished canons of quilt history research, such as determining the quiltmaker's identity, the quilt's provenance, date of making and fabric content, were no longer deemed essential. One needed only apply the recentlycreated visual criteria to identify with certainty quilts of African-American origin.4 This criticism of the methodology behind some of the early research highlights a few of the problems associated with this topic and rightfully
condemns the application of these criteria as the sole determining factors of African-American quilts. But it does not, nor is it meant to, invalidate the existence of this "profoundly different" group of quilts. The large numbers of quilts that share this aesthetic, including nineteenth-century examples, and the insight that Dr. Wahlman has shown regarding the making of these quilts lend credence to the argument for a specific cultural tradition at play in certain quilts. Furthermore,Dr. Wahlman writes in the introduction to her own forthcoming book about African-American quilts: These aesthetic criteria were a starting point and in no way was I trying to pigeonhole this innovative art. Yet others picked up on these criteria and used them to determine which quilts were 'real' African-American quilts.... My thesis is that most AfricanAmerican quiltmaking derives its aesthetic from various African traditions, both technological and ideological ones. Thus I deliberately study AfricanAmerican quilts which exhibit similar aesthetic tendencies with African textiles. Cuesta Benberry has recently clarified this situation by correctly pointing out the great diversity of quilting made over the last two centuries by African Americans.5 Dr. Wahhnan describes seven traits that appear consistently in the African-American quilts she has studied: vertical stripes,brightcolors,large designs, asymmetry, improvisation, multiple patterning, and symbolic forms. She has also noted deeper affinities between these quilts and African textiles, primarily in the use of symbolic patterns. Long narrow strips are the primary construction technique in West African and Caribbean textiles, and most cloth found in West Africa was made by joining these strips to form cloth. Loose, or "flying," strips were also used as part of ceremonial costumes in societies such as the Yoruba Egungun in Nigeria, which were organized to honor ancestors. The piecing of strips to form a textile is related to patchwork and in the hands of African
craftsmen, this piecing often intentionally results in asymmetrical and unpredictable patterns that stop the eye as it travels across the cloth. Weavings by women on wide stationary looms utilized vertical designs that simulated the fabrics made from pieced strips that were woven by men on narrow, portable looms. Color has traditionally played an important role in African textiles. The earliest cloth was blue and white, providing a strong contrast that could Benberry cautions repeatedly against drawing general conclusions on the basis of scant visual evidence. be seen from a distance. Later, colorful cloths were produced using European cloth that had been unraveled and rewoven. Multiple patterning, improvisation, asymmetry, and color all contribute to the important function of African textiles in communicating the social status of the wearer in terms of wealth, prestige, and education. Robert Farris Thompson has also suggested that they serve the further function of protection, confusing evil spirits that travel in straight lines.6 Dr. Wahlman traces these characteristics to four African civilizations: the Mandespeaking people of West Africa, the Yoruba and Fon people, the Ejagham people, and the Kongo and Kongoinfluenced people. As slaves were brought to the New World,this mixture was further blended with Latin-American, Native-American, and European influences. Although men were the primary textile artists in Africa, in the United States slave women became the principle weavers, seamstresses, and quilters, conforming to an established gender division of labor. Yet these same women were also expected to perform many of the same hard physical tasks for which the men were responsible. These additional skills were desirable and increased the female slave's worth to her owners. However, they also increased the burden that slave women bore. Long after men
STARS Nora Ezell Green City,Alabama 1977 Cotton and synthetic fabrics 94074' Museum of American Folk Art This purchase was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. 1991.13.1
were able to rest at night, women would still be required to produce a certain stint of weaving as well as the textile needs oftheir families.7 Cuesta Benberry states, "Africans brought to America were unfamiliar with the bed quilt but had knowledge both ofthe techniques used in making a quilt (piecing, appliquй, embroidery) and in weaving cloth."8 The transition to quilting was thus facilitated. However,the fact that Africans already possessed these skills would suggest that, as in other immigrant cultures, they also possessed an aesthetic concomitant with these skills that could be newly interpreted and adapted to the new forms. Whether that aesthetic was applied by the same quiltmakers who created the pieced, appliquйd, embroidered, whole cloth, broderie perse, and reverse appliquйd quilts that conformed to the dominant aesthetic is not yet conclusively known. Benberry repeatedly cautions against drawing general conclusions on the basis of scant visual evidence. This is important to keep in mind as one reads earlier writings on this topic. In his important and acclaimed work By the Work of Their Hands: Studies in Afro-American Folklife, for instance, John Michael Vlach briefly discusses African-American textiles. He makes several interesting points in his description of a blanket woven by Luiza Combs, an African woman who was brought to the United States near the beginning of the Civil War. Her weaving, a wool blanket with a stripe pattern, was probably made during the era of Reconstruction. Vlach emphasizes that all the steps of production, including color and design, were entirely within her command. Based on this one example he states that, although more comparative study is needed, the color choices conform to an African aesthetic. He points out that the stripe design, though familiar in "Anglo-American" weaving, was also a common African design. But then he concludes that the one blanket gives a "hint of the kinds of textiles that might have been made by slaves under the supervision of white owners. Those coverlets, blankets, and fabrics may have been African and American simultaneously."9 Even postulated as tentatively as Vlach has done, can the inference be
made that a blanket woven during Reconstruction forfamily use might be indicative of a textile produced under the supervision of a white owner? Benberry points out that to use the term "Anglo-American" suggests that no other groups participated in the formation of "American" textile traditions. Yet Africans, to name just one group, were vital contributors to the weaving and textile community that was forming these traditions. The limitations of the form make stripes a natural design choice from a technical standpoint and striped weavings are found in many cultures. Until more evidence is found, is the argument for an Anglo derivation more compelling than that for an African influence imported with slaves since the seventeenth century? It is, after all, the aesthetic and technical manipulation of the form, as well as its use, that indicates cultural preference. One of Cuesta Benberry's aims in both her exhibition and publication was to establish the presence of African Americans throughout the annals of quilt history in the United States. She hoped to achieve this through the analysis of historical fact and visual evidence. Where there did not seem to be ample material to draw conclusions, she chose not to speculate, but simply to state what was historically known. That quiltmaking among African Americans was widespread is supported by surviving examples from all former slave-holding states. Most of these quilts have descended in the families ofthe slave owners and are considered by some to be representative of the work produced by slaves for their white owners. The number of extant quilts made by slaves for their own use is small, yet statements have been published assigning general design characteristics to this category of quilts. The quilts that are documented were made mostly in traditional patterns such as "Nine-Patch," "Log Cabin," and "Rob Peter to Pay Paul.") Benberry asks rhetorically whether she can then conclude that these examples did not differ from those made for the slave owners. Interestingly, these are the very types of patterns that Wahlman cites in her discussion of African antecedents in African-American quilts. Log Cabin is essentially a strip-pieced pattern and a design that continues to be popular with contemporary African-American
quilters. Both Log Cabin and the Nine-Patch pattern incorporate small squares that share affinities with the cloth charm known as a "Mojo" or a "Hand." These charms, derived from West and Central African charm concepts,embody a healing medicine with the power to protect. In addition to their decorative qualities, they symbolize safety for the person using them." In the paragraph that follows, Benberry raises another interesting question, one that highlights the com- That quiltmaking among African Americans was widespread is supported by surviving examples from all former slave- holding states. plexity of tracing the origins of quilt styles and techniques. The American patchwork quilt is usually associated with the geometric block configuration. In recent years this has increasingly been referred to as an AngloAmerican style. According to quilt historians, among them Barbara Brackman,this configuration did not become standard in American quilting until the middle of the nineteenth century.12 Previously, there had been more flexibility in the patterns that quiltmakers chose, the most popular being the medallion style; both block and strip construction appear as minor techniques. As the block construction did not arrive in the New World intactfrom a European source, but seems to have developed in the United States, it cannot be accurately labeled "AngloAmerican." Such a term precludes the possibility of contributions to the evolution of the form by people of a nonEuropean background. Cuesta Benberry's text positions the creation of quilts within the social and historical context of AfricanAmerican life and quilt history. From this chronological presentation there emerges a picture of AfricanAmerican life from the Antebellum South to the Freedom Marches of the Civil Rights era to today. She writes of slave women who purchased their free-
dom and the freedom of their families through their needlework skills and of free black women in the anti-slavery movement who supported their endeavors partially through the sale of their quilts. She writes of the Freedom Rides and Freedom Marches of the 1960s and early 1970s; of Jessie Telfair's quilt that reads simply, "Freedom," over and over across its surface; and of the Freedom Quilting Bee, a quiltmaking cooperative that remains in existence today as the Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Quilting Bee. African Americans made autograph quilts, commemorative quilts, crazy quilts, fancy quilts, and scrap quilts. In the twentieth century they have continued to quilt individually, for their own use, and as a group, to support community values. Many trained artists have turned to the medium as a flexible alternative to more orthodox materials. Some of these artists have utilized African visual traditions to express their sense of continuity. Carole Harris of Detroit felt that traditional African designs offered her "the answer to questions I didn't know I had."13 After making a quilt that featured colorful hanging strips, Harris discovered pictures of dance costumes from Western Yoruba to which her quilt bore a striking resemblance. Quiltmaking has been so much a part of the African-American tradition that creative African Americans working in all the arts have incorporated quilt imagery into their written and visual expressions. One of the most important groups ofquilts included in Benberry's exhibition are those made by several generations of the Perkins family. These quilts represent a rare chance to document the quilting practices of a single family over a period of time and in both rural and urban settings. They range from decorative quilts on which a great deal of care and technical expertise were lavished to quickly made utility quilts. The technical skill, composition, and construction appear to be directly related to the quilt's intended function. The quilts demonstrate a participation in the prevalent trends ofquiltmaking ofthe period and illustrate the adaptation of skills to both use and socioeconomic factors. Atthe risk ofbeing criticized by both curators, however, I would not be
entirely fair to this discussion if!didn't point out a few motifs that seemed ambiguous, especially in the crazy quilt. One block, strikingly different from the rest, bears a design that looks like a strip-pieced quilt. This is explained only as having particular significance for the family. Crazy quilts are usually embellished with embroidered and appliquйd motifs, and this example is no exception. The crossed croquet mallets express the family's enjoyment of this activity, and the wheeled star is an effective decorative device. But these designs also bear strong similarities to symbols in the ideographic writing system of the Ejagham peoples of Nigeria known as Nsibidi, which Wahlman feels has played a significant role in the language of African-American quilts. Could the embroidered hands be the record of a child, as Benberry states, and also have protective connotations? The very nature of the crazy quilt--complex, asymmetrical, multi-patterned--invites the quiltmaker to encode layers of meaning, whether that meaning is personal to the maker and her family or signifies wider cultural messages. Among the most interesting American quilts, both for their powerful imagery and rich historical and cultural references, are Bible quilts, made predominantly by Southern AfricanAmerican women. Through their visual appliquйd narrative imagery these quilts parallel a strong African oral tradition that transmits values and religious beliefs, as well as educational and cultural teachings. The appliquйd images found on the late-nineteenth-century quilts made by Harriet Powers have inspired research for some time, and their debt to the appliquйd banners of the Fon people of Dahomey is not in question. Wahlman has taken a new look at Harriet Powers' quilts and believes that they might have strong fraternal associations. Benberry, too, notes the importance of fraternal organizations to African-American families from the postbellum era into the twentieth century. She suggests fraternal associations as another possible source for the enigmatic imagery sometimes found on Bible and other quilts. These organizations offered one of the avenues available to African Americans for health insurance and other benefits
that were otherwise frequently denied them. They also afforded opportunities for social activities and achievements of office within the society. In the literature on AfricanAmerican quiltmaking there has developed an exciting and thoughtprovoking discussion that has widened the scope of scholarly investigations. Hopefully,the result will be the continued discovery of material and information that sheds light on all aspects of the African-American contribution to the history ofAmerican quiltmaking.* Stacy C. Hollander is the Curator ofthe Museum ofAmerican Folk Art. She is the author ofHarry Lieberman: A Journey of Remembrance(Dutton Studio Books, 1991). NOTES I would like to thank Dr. Wahlman for making her manuscript available to me prior to publication. 1 Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman,Signs andSymbols:African Images in AfricanAmerican Quilts(New York: E.P. Dutton in Cooperation with the Museum of American Folk Art, 1993). 2 Ibid. 3 Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman, "African-American Quilts: Tracing the Aesthetic Principles," The Clarion 14, no. 2(Spring 1989), pp.44-54;Waldman, "Religious Symbolism in AfricanAmerican Quilts," The Clarion 14, no. 3 (Summer 1989), pp. 36-44. 4 Cuesta Benberry, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts(Louisville, KY.:The Kentucky Quilt Project,Inc., 1990),p. 15. 5 Wahlman,Signs andSymbols. 6 Ibid. 7 Deborah Gray White,"Female Slaves in the Plantation South," in Before Freedom Came:African-American Life in the Antebellum South, eds. Edward D.C. Campbell, Jr., and Kym S. Rice(Richmond, Va.:The Museum ofthe Confederacy and University Press of Virginia, 1991), p. 109. 8 Benberry,Always There, p. 23. 9 John Michael Vlach,By the Work of Their Hands:Studies in Afro-American Folklife (Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1991), p. 36 10 Benberry,Always There, p. 28 11 Wahlman,Signs and Symbols, p. 81. 12 Barbara Bradman,"The Strip Tradition in European-American Quilts," The Clarion 14, no 4.(Fall 1989), p. 45. 13 Benberry,Always There, p.62.

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