Mint Museum of Craft + Design

Mint Museum of Art

Charlotte, NC



Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists

February 5 - April 30, 2000


"I draw inspiration for my work from my everyday life and my childhood which is rich with conversation, memories of relatives and special occasions. I believe that all quilts tell a story, either in the history of the fabrics, the pattern, or in the making of the quilt. I try to carry on that tradition by creating scenes which give the viewer some idea of what my life is like, and in years to come, an idea of the times in which I have lived."

Barbara Pietila, quilter


The rich diversity of approaches to quiltmaking by African American artists today is featured in the exhibition Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African American Quilts at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Craft + Design, February 5 through April 30, 2000. Fifty quilts, using a wide variety of materials and techniques, are on display, from visually striking abstract patterns to figurative works with personal, family and cultural narratives. The exhibition, organized by the American Craft Museum, features the work of 30 members of the Women of Color Quilter' s Network (an organization of 1,200 male and female quilters nationwide).

"It is a magnificent show that transcends arbitrary distinctions between art and craft, while incorporating the spiritual dimension that imbues folk and visionary art with profound resonance," wrote art critic Chris MacLeod. "If there's one work that epitomizes the energy and exuberance barely contained here, it's Francis Hare's Sixteen Feet of Dance -A Celebration; a Self-Portrait. Nominally a quilt, (see left) the dancing feet - rendered in a rainbow of browns, a strand of beads around each ankle - convey such movement and rhythm that they defy even the notion of quilt as rectangle."

"I'm moved by a passion for color, a love of symbols and a deep interest in matters of the spirit. Blending these elements allows me to keep the rhythm of my roots alive through quilting. My art fulfills a powerful desire to visually express what cannot be spoken. The quilts are meditation quilts because of the spiritual journey experienced during each creation."

Adriene Cruz, Portland, OR

The African American quilting tradition dates back to the colonial period. Enslaved Africans brought with them textile skills, such as applique, piecing and embroidery. "This rich legacy of cultural expression developed in this country, culminating in a virtual renaissance of African American quilting in the past two decades," stated co-curator David McFadden, who originated the exhibit with Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, founder of the Women of Color Quilter's Network.

Pride in affirming continuity with African ancestors is a recurring theme in Spirits of the Cloth, as is the strength derived from bonds of family and community. Some of the artists actually incorporate African textiles, such as kente cloth and mud cloth, into their compositions. African symbols and imagery are employed in designs, such as the depiction of Yamaja, the Yoruba goddess of the sea, in Michael Cummings' Haitian Mermaid. African textiles embellished with cowrie shells and mirrors become the robe of a holy man in Adriene Cruz's Imani/Faith. In Talisman, Sharon Kerry Harlan encrusts textiles with found objects, from keys to pins to figurines. (right: Sa. Benjamin-Hannibal, Potholders/Dervishes)

"My indigenous ancestors stay with me the whole time I work. It is as if they are continuously reminding me of the responsibility I have to those who came before and those yet to come. I view myself as an instrument who continues the cycle of traditional art through wall covers, quilts and wearable art.

Myrah Brown Green, Brooklyn, NY

Using the quilt as a narrative medium, quilters combine needlework and cloth to capture life's joys and sorrows. The artists in the exhibition offer their individual interpretations of the ideals of home and family life in personal and visually striking images. Dindga McCannan's The Wedding Party: The History of Our Nation is Really the Story of Families is a quilted page (see left) from a prized family photo album.

Quilts have served as a vehicle for political and social commentary since America' s colonial period. The precedent of anti-slavery and freedom quilts from the 19th century are found in 20th century quilts that record and comment upon topics ranging from civil rights to urban politics, race, gender and status. L'Merchie Frazier's From a Birmingham Jail: MLK incorporates photo transfer images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with an excerpt from an April, 1963 letter he wrote.

Celebrating the joys of color, pattern and texture, the quilts of Spirits of the Cloth employ a seemingly endless variety of traditional and innovative materials and rely on techniques passed down through generations as well as current innovation to fabricate their artistic expressions. "These quilts, like any art, serve as primary transmitters of the cultural, political and spiritual values by which these artists live," stated Dr. Mazloomi. "These works are prose, poetry and songs, captured in cloth."

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