NEW YORK.- For four generations, the women of a rural community called Gee’s Bend, in southwest Alabama, have been creating quilts of exceptional artistry. This fall, a selection of 70 of these quilts, made from the 1930s to the 1990s, will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, to be shown in the Peter Norton Family Galleries on the Museum’s third floor from November 21, 2002 to March 2, 2003, was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it debuted in September.
The 46 African-American women who made these quilts reveal a remarkable command of design and a painterly approach to a traditional art form. Among those whose works will be seen in the exhibition are America Irby (1916-1993), Nettie Young (b. 1917), Lucy T. Pettway (b. 1921), Polly Bennett (b. 1922), Lizzie Major (b. 1922), Arlonzia Pettway (b. 1923), Annie Mae Young (b. 1928), Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929), Leola Pettway (b. 1929), Linda Pettway (b. 1929), Loretta Pettway (b. 1942), and Belinda Pettway (b. 1957).
The color schemes, dramatic scale shifts and experimental attitude visible in these quilts is exemplary of a specifically African-American tradition of quiltmaking that embraces stylistic diversity, brilliant and contrasted color and uniquely idiosyncratic compositions. These specific African-American traditions have often been connected formally to certain African textile designs, particularly the embroidered cloths of the Kuba people in central Africa and Kente cloths of the Asante in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
"This is a very little-known piece of American history and a singular body of work," said Alvia Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art at the MFAH, who co-curated the exhibition with John Beardsley, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, independent curator Jane Livingston, and collector William Arnett. "The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making."
"These quilts are outstanding examples of a great American art form," said Debra Singer, the Whitney’s associate curator of contemporary art, who is organizing the New York showing. "Reflecting an extraordinarily painterly approach to working with textiles, the quilts are of unique historical importance as they trace quilting traditions and innovations handed down for four generations. This work transcends the outdated, residual boundaries between art and craft."
Gee’s Bend, a community of about 700, is a long-isolated enclave that is literally a bend at the base of the Alabama River, bounded by the river on three sides, about 30 miles southwest of Selma. Until the late 1960s, there was not even a paved road. Gee’s Bend is named after Joseph Gee, the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold their plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845; most of the people who live in Gee’s Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Gee’s Bend became known for its quilts, briefly, during the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s when the Freedom Quilting Bee was organized. Today, quilting is a dying art in Gee’s Bend and there are only a few quiltmakers working on a regular basis.
Throughout American history, quilting has provided generations of women with an outlet to express their creativity, convictions, and skill, the latter usually learned from their mothers and grandmothers. The early quilts were made primarily from the fabrics of daily life: old work clothes, corduroy, denim, cotton sheets, and handkerchiefs.
In addition to the quilts, a 20-minute video by Vanessa Vadim and Matt Arnett will be shown as part of the exhibition. Filled with the faces and voices of the women and the music of the community of Gee’s Bend, the video features interviews with a number of the quiltmakers talking about their lives and their work, archival photographs, and documentation on the history of the area, revealing a strong sense of community and longstanding commitment to the making of quilts.
On Saturday, November 23 at 4 PM, a number of the quiltmakers will discuss their work with Alvia Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Debra Singer, the Whitney’s associate curator of contemporary art. On Thursday, December 5 at 7 PM, John Beardsley, writer and independent curator, will give a lecture exploring the unique history of the Gee’s Bend community and reflecting on the heritage of African-American traditional arts.
The exhibition catalogue, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, features photographs and research, along with essays by the curators and specialists in quilts and African-American culture and history.
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend has been organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta. This exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of Continental Airlines, Inc., The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.