Join the Black Artists of DC
Powered by

Monday, November 13, 2006

Creating Beauty beyond the Beat Down of Oppression

By Daphne Muse

As the daughter of an 84-year-old textile artist who has been quilting for more than thirty years and the great-granddaughter of a woman whose parents were enslaved Africans, I’ve been warmed by both the aesthetics and utility of quilts for several decades. Through my mother’s exquisite hand sewn quilts, dolls and story coats, I’m surrounded by the narrative of familial and cultural stories. I also often sleep under an intact quilt made in the first decade of the 20th century, by Daphne Allen, my fraternal great-grandmother. There is great comfort in sleeping with that beauty and history
Based on our shared passion for quilts, four years ago my brother Vincent sent me a copy of Gee’s Bend: the Women and Their Quilts, a book that introduced me to the artistic visions of a group of quilters from a tiny rural community in South Central Alabama known as Gee’s Bend. Nestled in the bend of the historically and environmentally murky Alabama River, the intersection of the river and the land forms a peninsula five miles wide and eight miles long. It’s created a unique kind of geographical and cultural isolation that has served to benefit the community in some truly ironic ways. Because the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend were left largely to themselves close to one hundred years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, many of the community’s traditions and folkways survived virtually unchanged well into the 20th century. It’s a timeless place safe enough for people to go walking after dark and where sometimes the loudest sound is the rising of the moon.
Populated almost entirely by African Americans, a collective of some twenty women from Gee’s Bend have brought a bold and daring new vision to the world of modern art through a medium often relegated to a craft and hobby. But not only have the quilters put Gee’s Bend on the world map, their work has resulted in a following that flew in from Philadelphia, Oklahoma and LA to view their work, attend workshops and get books signed containing images of their blazing with color and at times outright brazen, often asymmetrical works of art.
After my brother sent me that first book, we spent months on the phone talking about how bold and African these quilts appeared and how the precise, geometric patterns told such familiar stories like the one’s in Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” We both thought these women had to be mathematical geniuses in order to create the architecturally compelling convergence of image and design that drives so much of their work as seen in Loretta Pettway’s “Log Cabin Courthouse Steps.” I’d sure live in a house designed by Louisiana P. Bendolph’s quilt “Housetop.” It has an uncanny resemblance to traditional architecture and art of the Ndebele women of South Africa. Some of the quilts have been reproduced as etchings by Berkeley’s Paulson Press and some designed into fine carpets available at various retail outlets. A series of titles, all published by Tinwood Books, have been issued documenting their work:
Gee’s Bend: the Women and Their Quilts 2002
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend 2002
The Architecture of Gee’s Bend 2006
When I read the announcement that the Quilts of Gee’s Bend was coming to the de Young, I literally organized my writing schedule and other dimensions of my life so that I could attend the workshops and receptions connected to the exhibit. The showing of their works in museums across the country including the Whitney in New York, High in Atlanta and now the de Young in San Francisco has rooted curators out of the business as usual paradigm of the art world and called upon them to sit up and respond to the clamor created through the work, amazing voices and profoundly spiritual presence of these artists.
These four generations of women simply did not succumb to the beat down of racism, oppression or fear. Nor do they travel with the edge of searing egos or artistic angst often present in creative people. They let nothing stop them from their replaying their dreams, visions and encounters in their daily lives through the bold colors and daring juxtaposition of form in quilts ranging from Nettie Young’s “H” variation, Milky Way” to Annie May Young’s “Work Clothes” and Loretta Pettway’s “Medallion.” Many of the quilts are made from scraps of denim workpants, brightly colored cast offs, voter registration banners and corduroy. They simply were made for warmth, but with an astonishing beauty.
While it’s thrilling to see these women hailed and celebrated in their lifetime, it is even more reassuring to know that they benefit from the sale of their work. On my four visits to the de Young, the lines to purchase related products including books, scarves, cards and posters teamed with people eager to acquire their art. While the etchings fetch between $1200.00 and $4500.00, the price range for the quilts is $26,000.00-$30,000.00. Each time a quilt sells, fifty percent of the proceeds go to the quilter and the other fifty percent goes to the collective. At the end of the year, the funds directed to the collective are equally divided and included in the equation are those women who can no longer quilt because of diminishing vision and other health challenges. The women also receive royalties from all related products.
One also cannot overlook the unwavering commitment and marketing perseverance of controversial Georgia-born art collector William Arnett and his son Matt. In 1998, Arnett saw a photograph of Annie Mae Young with her great-granddaughter. In the photo were two quilts that caught his eye and set him on the path to beating down doors to get the works of these artists on the walls of the country’s leading museums. He established the Tinwood Ventures in 2002 as a non-profit venture organized to advance the work of vernacular visual artists into the public domain.
A few weeks ago, through the generosity of a woman from Oregon I’d never met and as a result of a simple hello to a woman who turned out to be the curator for the de Young exhibit, I was invited to share in the Oregon woman’s dream of hosting breakfast for the quilters. As the food was being served, artist Florine Smith reached over to me quizzically whispering what exactly we were eating. The Duck Frittata was new to their palates and skepticism prevailed.
At one point during the meal at Postrio, a toney San Francisco Restaurant, the voices of Mary Lee Bendolph and Lucy Mingo welled up in song from deep within the ravines of their souls, almost shattering the Dale Chihuly glassworks adorning the restaurant. My eyes brimmed with tears as the range of their voluminous voices, uproarious laughter, heart melting smiles and funny stories which fed my spirit, deeply. Then Mary Lee Bendolph and Florine Smith shared in telling story about a culinary rebellion they almost started while in Cincinnati. Worn to the bone by the absence of food familiar to their own palates, they started chanting chicken, chicken, chicken! Then Ms. Smith looked at me and said, “All I want is some greens, baby; all I want is some greens.” Believe me, I so wanted to bring this collective of artistic royalty platters of greens, yams, cornbread, butterbeans and fried chicken, when I returned to the museum the next day for their workshop. I so wanted to prepare a major throw down, but I simply couldn’t work in shopping for, preparing and getting to the de Young on time for their workshop. I also had visions of the culinary “aromatherapy” of fried chicken, greens and yams lighting up the corridors of the de Young.
The Museum of the African Diaspora also mounted a small exhibit of the quilts and hosted a presentation on the Freedom Movement and Gee’s Bend led by Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement Jean Wiley and Bruce Hartford. I also gathered up family members from Eugene, Oregon to Santa Cruz, California and took several students from Mills College to bear witness to these amazing women and their works. The demand for these artist and the exhibit resulted in the museum staff having to do serious overtime to accommodate lines winding through its mighty halls, as though they were lined up to hear rock stars. Tickets to their workshops sold out within days after they went on sale. One woman proclaimed this to be the biggest thing since the Beattles!
Their spirits are as vibrant as their quilts and they range in age from mid-30s to early nineties, with one of the youngest Louisiana Bendolph clearly forging some daring new territory in this art form. Tears continuously streamed down my face as I sat amongst several of students I’d invited to join me at a workshop, where ten of the quilters were joined by vocalist Linda Tillery and an ensemble from her cultural heritage choir, as their combined voices almost blew the rooftop off the de Young. The exhibit runs through December 31st at the de Young. But you also can see other exhibitions of their work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and their work is going to Japan.
In December, I’m following up on the invitation by several of the quilters to come and visit Gee’s Bend (45 miles from Selma). My mother lives in Southwest Georgia, a mere four hours drive, as the crow flies, from where these women still gather as a collective to quilt their dreams, visions and elements from their everyday lives; I want to share this deeply profound artistic and spiritual experience with the woman whose quilts and coats cover and comfort four generations of Muse women.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and archivist, living in Oakland, California.
To find out more about the history of Gee’s Bend, the Quilters and the schedule for the exhibit at the de Young, go to the following websites:
Daphne Muse

All content © 2006 Black Artists of DC all rights reserved.
For permission to reproduce contact:


Post a Comment

<< Home