Stitching "Scraps of Memories"

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Stitching "Scraps of Memories"

African American Textile Art as Historical Aesthetics

 As Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use demonstrates, African American quilts are repositories of history and culture that anyone can appreciate as art, but that most onlookers are not linguistically proficient enough to "read" in their entirety.  Whether self-defacing or flamboyant, African American textiles stealthily weave in various techniques that are intended to downplay the complexities of everyday-use art--and ultimately to signify upon even themselves.  The following books can assist readers who wish to be more literate when viewing African American quilts produced between the Antebellum period and today.

A book I used when teaching cross-cultural literary studies, Jacqueline Tobin's Hidden in Plain View: the Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad translates layers of textual allusions at play in what functioned as bed coverings at night and signposts during the day.  Synchronizing songs, proverbs, and biblical verses - all of which had double meanings in African American culture - quilts served as precursors to Green Pages and AAA road maps for conductors and passengers on the underground railroad. Yet for those who were illiterate in these textiles, quilts merely looked like laundry drying on a clothes line or fence. Subsequently, these quilts (and those who read them well) were able to remain “hidden in plain view,” or as Da’ Mayor in Spike Lee’s "Do the Right Thing" explains, “Those who know don’t tell, and those who tell don’t know."

Because early cultural anthropologists inserted a European-American lens between themselves and African American cultural production, they initially mis-read African American quilt aesthetics. Signs and Symbols : African Images in African-American Quilts
by Maude Southwell Wahlman highlights specific traditional West African aesthetics consistently employed in African American quilts - namely, patchwork, strip textiles, tie-dye, starch-resist adire, women’s weave, applique’, large shapes, strong colors, asymmetry, multiple pattering, improvisation, embedding scripts in charms, and infusing cloth with scripts (Vai, Nsibidi, etc.) in order to direct energy along designated pathways (similar to feng shui placements). Interestingly, Wahlman places front-and-center the artisans of these texttiles, before then placing their works within these specific traditional ethnic strands.
More entertaining than text-heavy nonfiction, and more dense than a coffee-table look-book, Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial by Paul Arnett, et al, incorporates photography, history, biography, and reprints to tell the story of how quilts made of cast-off clothing enter into dialogue with Dial’s art from reclaimed items - including castaways from Gee’s Bend quilts. Like the beat and off-beat in a Jazz riff, the memory quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the mixed-media are of Dial play off each other, creating beauty for the eye. The notes throughout speak volumes.

Stitched from the Soul : Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South by Gladys-Marie Fry is chock full of black and white photos of African Americans who made a life while toiling in concentrated slave-labor camps. Once past toddler-hood, African Americans in Virginia, Georgia, and other southern states, expended their waking hours engaged in hard labor. As a result, their rationed clothing required constant mending and thus resembled quilts. What is stunning is how African American seamstresses distinguished meticulously stitched, personalized but stock quilts they made for European Americans from the varied, sometimes whimsical quilts they crafted for themselves and other African Americans.
And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations and Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African-American Quilts  are two texts by Carolyn Mazzloomi, one of the most prolific and highly-honored scholars on African American quilting.  A chronological recollection of known and unknown U.S. history, Still We Rise balances visual textiles and written text. Ironically, while Spirits of the Cloth gives voice to quilters’ African-inspired aesthetics and style choices, this text is silent on the traditional techniques that these contemporary quilts echo.

Merging biography and critical analysis with full-paged, color reprints, Dancing at the Louvre : Faith Ringgold's French Collection and Other Story Quilts begins by creating historical and personal contexts for “reading” Ringgold’s story quilts, particularly her French Collection.  Although Ringgold appears to place realism at the center of her quilts, her style definitely retains specific traditional African American aesthetics.