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Quilts and Social Fabric: Textiles as Art, History

by Joshua Peters

July 20, 2016

Photo credit: (above) Lillian Blades' Red Clay with Caribbean Spice (mixed media, 2016); (below) a quilt by Michael A. Cummings (untitled, 1994).

A quilt is far more than the sum of the many blocks of fabric that make it up. The African quilt making tradition has its roots spread far across continental Africa, as well as across artistic and utilitarian modes. From Ghanaian kente cloth to quilt making as a form of tribal identification and historical record keeping, an African quilt serves both utilitarian and aesthetic purposes: as a ward against evil spirits; as centerpiece of social gatherings; as coverings for beds and defense against the cold. Modern African American culture has similarly embraced the quilt, as a familial treasure to be passed on, the textile representation of mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers whose stitches elevated quilt making to a master-craft. Over time, the quilt has become a medium for creative improvisation and artistic expression, bringing it from the bed to the wall as art object.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, in partnership with the MetLife Foundation, is proudly exploring the cultural legacy of the quilt and the depth of African American quilt making in their newest exhibition, Quilts and Social Fabric: Heritage and Improvisation.Curator and studio artist Dr. Michael D. Harris has included a wide spectrum of artists in Quilts and Social Fabric in an effort to highlight the rich history of African and African American quilt making, thereby focusing attention on the influence that the quilt has on contemporary studio artists.

Renowned quilt and mixed media artist, and professor emeritus at UC San Diego, Faith Ringgold is central to the exhibit, with a body of work that has been four decades in the making. Her career of protests and artistic innovation paved the way for artists of color and women in the museum sector, and in the art world beyond. Her painted narrative quilts are among her most famous works. Quilts and Social Fabric features several—most notably her 1986 work, Groovin' High, which depicts a memory of Ringgolds—that memorialize her many visits to Sunday afternoon parties growing up in Harlem in the late 1930s and '40s. Her style here reflects much of the attitude of the Harlem Renaissance and is shared by many of her contemporaries—large blocks of color, expressive faces and dynamic abstracted bodies. The colors in Groovin' High are as loud and vibrant and hot as the summer Sunday it depicts.

Harlem is further represented by the quilt virtuoso Michael A. Cummings, who still lives and works in the Harlem brownstone he purchased more than 30 years ago. Inspired by contemporaries like Romare Bearden, Cummings uses the quilt medium much like a collage artist, incorporating distinct abstracted elements together to form a greater unified composition—in the case of the untitled 1994 quilt featured in Quilts and Social Fabric, a church and it's serving pastor.

But Quilts and Social Fabric doesn't restrict itself to quilts. Mixed media and fashion artists are also featured, each with their own unique take on the quilting practice. In the case of artist Lillian Blades, traditional African American quilts inspired a series of assemblages that take advantage of an artistic element not easily achieved in the medium: dimension. Blade's Reflections features building-blocks similar to that of the block of fabric that might make up an individual addition to a quilt—only in this case with painted wooden blocks. These blocks form a cascade of color, texture and form that develops in a waterfall down the length of the piece. Blades' other works pop out amongst their flat peers, offering a unique post-modern look at how traditional craft has escalated into something else entirely.

3D artist and designer Januwa Moja's work, Crown of the Thorns for The Visionary, also takes quilting concepts into new mediums, this time via a mixed media headdress, again taking advantage of the patchwork qualities reflected in her fabric based co-exhibitors.

Quilts and Social Fabric is an exhibition that asks its audience to reconsider the quilt for what it is in both its aesthetic and historical context. It forces the audience to understand that quilting isn't just relegated to another stall at the county flea market, but instead stakes a major artistic, narrative and conceptual claim—and much like its collage and fashion cousins—and demands the consideration awarded to other fine art mediums. With great respect for the artists involved, Dr. Harris and his associates have assembled a timeline for the elevation of a craft—one that began as a means to capture ancestry and provide comfort, and has grown from there into an artistic medium that embodies those ideas. 

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Tags: textiles, quilt, mixed media, African American, Gantt Center, Lillian Blades, Harlem Renaissance, Faith Ringgold

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