A stitch in time: the enduring influence of the Gee’s Bend quilters | Art

by AryanArtnews
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A stitch in time: the enduring influence of the Gee’s Bend quilters | Art

Aanyone who thought abstract art was a club of white, male “lone geniuses” got an unexpected wake-up call in 2002 when quilts from the Alabama hamlet of Gee’s Bend first toured American museums. The quilt’s luscious hues, clipped shapes and improvised visual rhythms have drawn comparisons to Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. Their creators were an intergenerational community of African-American women who to this day work in the small neighborhood that was once a slave owner’s plantation.

For Legacy Russell, an American feminist theorist and curator, the quilters’ impact has only grown in the two decades since that beautiful museum tour. The New Bend, the traveling exhibit she curated, explores the legacy of the Gee’s Bend quilters and the artists who continue to work in their lineage, bringing together a 13-strong lineup of radical textile artists.

Sojourner Truth Parsons applies quilting methodology to buzzing paintings whose dancing, tumbling geometries in summer sky blue and tangerine recall Matisse’s cutouts. “While she is a painter, she is inspired by quilting in her own family traditions,” says Russell of the artist of Mi’kmaq, African-Canadian and settler heritage. “Quilting is instructive in how these artists expand what their visual plane might look like.”

Quilting’s importance as a way for marginalized people to channel expression is key to each artist in the exhibit. Russell wants to expand how the quilters’ achievements are understood in ways that go beyond the condescending labels of “craft” or “folk art.” “These are designations that have a very challenging history in terms of being hugely racialized, classed and gendered,” she says.

The Right to (My) Life from 2017, by Atlanta-based Dawn Williams Boyd, plays on quilts’ associations of domestic comfort and security, and their place in women’s lives. The crowd scene shows a caring black mother whose arms protectively surround her young family, while anti-abortion protesters wave banners and a pensive white woman is escorted out of her chauffeur-driven car. “Dawn calls her works ‘rag paintings’ to overturn our assumptions about what painting practices can look like,” says Russell.

Craft’s revival has typically been framed as an antidote to life online, with a focus on touch, communal practice, and a slower way of making. Yet it is textile history’s connection to computer technology that interests Russell, whose recent book Glitch Feminism tackles the potential for fluid identities in the digital age. For example, punch cards used to create weaving patterns on looms paved the way for the binary code that would enable the first computers. Textiles’ technological credentials are at the fore in Ctrl+Alt+Del, a Jacquard-woven tapestry by New Yorker Qualeasha Wood, in which she positions herself as a self-created deity: a haloed selfie on her computer desk, surrounded by heavenly emojis and clouds.

The Gee’s Bend quilters’ threads – from their artistic innovations to their work’s political implications and community history – have been picked up by artists far and wide. “The Gee’s Bend quilters are not in our rear view,” confirms the curator. “They all come together at the same point in history. We ask, ‘What does that dialogue really look like?'”

The new radical… three more highlights from The New Bend

Photo: Qualeasha Wood/Kendra Jayne Patrick

Qualeasha Wood’s Ctrl+Alt+Del, 2021
Qualeasha Wood’s tapestry brings a medium that was once the sole preserve of the ruling class into a contemporary online world where individuals are free to shape their own identity. It is made on a Jacquard loom, whose punch cards paved the way for the creation of computers.

Basil Kincaid's Midnight Prayers & The Journey of Becoming, 2022.
Photo: Basil Kincaid Studio

Basil Kincaid’s Midnight Prayers & The Journey of Becoming, 2022
Basil Kincaid comes from a long matriarchal line of quilters and, like those at Gee’s Bend, repurposes donated or found materials to create silhouette figures that explore black history and trauma.

Zadie Xa's Shrine Painting 2: Western Yellowcedar, 2022
Photo: Keith Lubow/Zadie Xa/Hauser & Wirth

Zadie Xa’s Shrine Painting 2: Western Yellowcedar, 2022
As curator Russell notes, “Artists from all kinds of backgrounds have been influenced by Gee’s Bend.” Korean-Canadian artist Zadie Xa draws on ancient Korean feminist shamanism and rural women’s communal quilting traditions.

The New Bend is at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, until May 8.

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