Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 10, 2002Volume 30, Number 29Two-Week Issue

Pictured is Maddie Ross' 1981 "Monkey Wrench Quilt."

Quilts by African-American women
of the rural South are on view

Bold colors and asymmetrically designed fabric works will be featured in "Nine African-American Quilters," an exhibition that will be on view May 14-Nov. 10 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

The nine quilters represented in this exhibition all lived in the rural South, working primarily in Gee's Bend, or Boykin, Alabama, a geographically isolated, 10,000-acre area surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The current population, largely descendants of the slaves brought to establish the Mark Pettway plantation there in 1845, is one of the most concentrated and racially exclusive black populations in the South.

The works are from the private collection of a New Haven area resident who worked as a VISTA volunteer in rural Alabama in 1973. While living with a black family and attending their church services, he became fascinated by the quilts the local women were creating -- seeing in them the fluid improvisations he heard in the church services and gospel music.

In forming his collection, he was also inspired by the lectures of Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson and his interpretations of African-American quilts. The Yale scholar introduced the collector to Professor Maude Southwell Wahlman, author of "Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts," who -- along with Mary McCarthy, the manager of a quilting cooperative -- guided him in his research and collecting. Over time he has concentrated on the work of Susie May Ponds, Mozell Benson, and Arie, Leola and Martha Jane Pettway, all of whom are represented in the exhibition.

Quilting, the technique of stitching together two layers of fabric with an additional thin layer between them, was introduced to medieval Europe by soldiers returning from the Crusades, where they had learned about the insulating quality of quilted clothing worn by the Turks under their armor. English colonists brought the technique to the New World and, in the 18th century, Americans began to make quilted bedcovers with geometrically patterned tops composed of small leftover scraps of fabric.

While African-American quilters used many of the traditional Anglo-American patterns, they also drew upon traditions of West African textiles, such as the "string" or strip tradition, in which narrow woven bands were stitched together to form larger pieces of cloth.

The exhibition also reveals the quilts' relationship to other aspects of African-American culture, such as jazz, blues, Black English and dance.

The exhibition was organized by Patricia E. Kane, curator of American decorative arts, and Mary L. Kordak, the Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Education. It is supported in part by The Friends of American Art at Yale.

In conjunction with the exhibit Thompson, the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art, is giving three lectures on the theme "Indelibly Black: African Art for African Americans." The first talk, held on May 8, was "An Aesthetic of the Cool: the Art of Abatan." He will also speak on "Kongo Carolina, Kongo New Orleans" on Tuesday, May 14, at 2 p.m. and on "Canyengue! The Black Roots of Tango" on Thursday, May 23, at noon.

Information about future related events will appear in the Yale Bulletin & Calendar.

The Yale University Art Gallery, located at Chapel and York Streets, is open free to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (until 8 p.m. Thursdays through June) and 1-6 p.m. Sundays. General and program information is available at (203) 432-0600 or www.yale.edu/artgallery.


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