How These African American Quilts Became Seminal Works of Modern Art

Courtesy of Sharon Williams from Gees Bend

Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason are authors, designers, and the founders of the New York-based life-style and design model AphroChic. On this column, they dive into the wealthy historical past of assorted design objects and motifs that originate throughout the African Diaspora.


One of many potential hazards of loving artwork is the tendency to see it as one thing separate from on a regular basis life—a factor aside, with no potential to perform virtually past what it stirs in us emotionally or intellectually. Typically that may be true, however typically our most impressed works are those impressed by a sensible want, just like the patterned rugs of the Center East and Central Asia. The African American quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, fall into this class. Now hailed as pivotal works of recent artwork in museum exhibitions across the nation, the quilts have been impressed by the straightforward want to remain heat.

The small group of Gee’s Bend, situated at an remoted bend within the Alabama River about 50 miles south of Selma, started in 1816 because the cotton plantation of Joseph Gee. The plantation was later bought—together with its workforce of 47 enslaved laborers—to a relative, Mark H. Pettway. Although the land would change fingers repeatedly afterward, many of the present group’s inhabitants (the descendants of these enslaved on the unique plantation) nonetheless bear the Pettway identify.

The custom of quilt making that developed in Gee’s Bend doubtless traces again to the earliest days of the plantation itself, drawing from a mix of African, Native American, and authentic strategies. The quilts first got here to nationwide consideration within the Sixties with the formation of the Freedom Quilting Bee. This assortment of Gee’s Bend girls gathered after auctions of the quilts in New York Metropolis attracted the eye of Vogue, Bloomingdales, and finally, the Smithsonian. The collective was a approach for ladies in the neighborhood to earn cash and rally help for the voting drives of the Civil Rights Motion. In retaliation, the native authorities ceased ferry service to the group, successfully isolating it, save for a single nation highway. Undeterred, the collective continued to achieve associates and connections and is credited with inflicting a resurgence of recognition for quilts in American inside design within the Sixties.

gees bend, alabama, library of congress

Courtesy of Sharon Williams from Gees Bend

By the twenty first century, the quilts of Gee’s Bend had been firmly established as artworks. The museum exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” was held on the Museum of Positive Arts in Houston in 2002 earlier than touring throughout the nation. In 2006, ferry service to the group was restored.

Gee’s Bend quilts are available in quite a lot of types, every of them a departure from the extra structured traditions of European and European American variations. These types might be typically categorized as summary, geometric, bricklayer; Sears corduroy, and workclothes. The summary or improvised quilts are sometimes thought-about essentially the most emblematic of the custom. Simply essentially the most emotional of the types, their aesthetic has typically been in comparison with that of jazz improvisation for the energetic, free-form perspective they specific.

The geometric quilts are dazzling artworks repeating easy shapes like triangles or rectangles in artistic and surprising patterns. This type was extremely popular amongst Gee’s Belt quilters within the early twentieth century. Their vibrant, energetic shows are a placing distinction to what the group was experiencing via the Nice Melancholy years.

mary lee bendolph blanket

Courtesy of Mary Lee Bendolph

mary lee bendolph blanket

Courtesy of Mary Lee Bendolph

Bricklayer quilts start with a single piece of cloth, with strips of extra material woven in from the sides to border the unique sample within the heart. A longtime favourite throughout the group, the approach has been in comparison with the “Name and Response” custom of African American music, as present in gospel and the Blues.

The corduroy and workclothes strategies converse to the very roots of the custom. Within the 70s, the Freedom Quilting Bee produced pillow circumstances for Sears. Scraps of the fabric offered inevitably discovered their approach into their quilts. The works produced throughout this era are distinctive each of their shade palette and their use of of corduroy, thought-about an atypical material for quilting. Worn workclothes then again, have been the primary and most enduring useful resource for Gee’s Bend quilters. The material, already overwhelmed and worn from exhausting use within the fields, lent a hauntingly weathered really feel to the quilts when strips of the fabric have been specified by summary patterns—or, in some circumstances, no sample in any respect.


Courtesy of Katie Mae

Gee’s Bend quilts might be displayed within the house in any variety of methods. As artworks they are often held on the partitions and even framed to create a dramatic backdrop. Nevertheless it’s simply as becoming to place them to their authentic makes use of: In any case, they have been made to maintain households collectively and heat, and there’s no extra sensible or creative purpose to deliver one thing into your property than that. Nevertheless you select to include a Gee’s Bend quilt into your property decor, it’s necessary to take action in a approach that acknowledges the fraught historical past and lengthy custom that they emerge from and proceed to characterize, respecting them not simply as people artwork “from the margins,” however as trendy artwork from the guts.

Genuine Gee’s Bend Quilts can now be found on-line. Listed below are a few of our favourite sources for genuine quilts:

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