I remember when my sister, the quilter in the family, first showed me pictures of several quilts from Gee’s Bend at some point in the mid-2000s. They were strikingly beautiful, and unlike anything I’d seen before. Lots of other people thought so, too, when they were first exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002.
|Many people were astounded and delighted when they got their first looks at the now-famous Gee’s Bend quilts. In 2006 they were featured on United States postage stamps.
Like many people, I was fascinated by the dynamic asymmetry of these designs, such a different approach to the formal balance found in most traditional quilt patterns.
|If you’ve grown up with quilts as I have, the first thing that leaps to mind when someone says “patchwork quilt” is the formal balance of traditional patterns such as the Six-Pointed Star Medallion Quilt (2017) from Catbird Quilts at left, or the Hoedown grid quilt by Codysnana, from The Spruce Crafts at right.
We artists and art lovers seek and create bridges to meaning by linking what we know to things we have not previously seen. Thus, I understand the comparisons to the work of Color Field artists such as Barnett Newman, or artists associated with Geometric Abstraction, such as Frank Stella or Josef Albers, by art critics commenting on the earliest shows. They had few other points of reference in their universe (not being conversant with West African textiles, apparently).
Of course, an argument can be and has been made that, particularly in the white-male-dominated world of the New York art scene in the early “uh-ohs” (well pre-#MeToo) there were more than a few people flabbergasted that impoverished, isolated black women could actually come up with such stunning and masterful designs, all by themselves.
Well, suck it up, guys. White men didn’t invent ALL the good things after all. (Truth be told, there are those who will point out that they actually didn’t even invent as many of those good things as they claim . . . but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).
Bottom line: the women of Gee’s Bend are the real deal, even if they didn’t go to art school or study “the masters.” But it’s also true that they didn’t get into the Whitney, and thereby onto the world stage, all by themselves.
They got there through the efforts of a white man from Atlanta, named William “Bill” Arnett, and as with all help from white men, the longer one looks at his work and treatment of the outsider artists he discovered, the more questions arise. There are those who intimate or outright claim exploitation. Certainly, the licensing of those images for postage stamps didn’t filter back to Gee’s Bend, for one example among many.
Bill Arnett, of course, has his own version of events. And you certainly can’t say he didn’t have a nose for talent. Not only did he discover and share the Gee’s Bend quilts with the world, but lightning struck at least twice. He’s also the man who discovered Thornton Dial and mentored him into world-class artist scene. Arnett continues to champion the cause of African art, with his Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
No matter who paid for what, licensed what, or what settlements were reached in the aftermath, one thing we must say is that, whatever their influences, the quilters of Gee’s Bend have become influential in their own right. They only came to the attention of the world in 2002, so we still don’t even yet know how or what or where their influence will go, but already they’ve become established deep in the aesthetic consciousness of contemporary African American art. Younger African American artists know Gee’s Bend is a place where their roots run deep.
|Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018, the official portrait of the former First Lady, by Amy Sherald.
For one example, a younger Amy Sherald, whose work I profiled last spring, and who was recently chosen to create the official portrait of Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, attended that 2002 Whitney show. Sherald says part of the reason she chose to use the Michelle Smith-designed Milly dress for the portrait was the way it reminded her of the Gee’s Bend quilts.
I predict that the echoes of influence aren’t finished reverberating through generations (and artworks) to come.
IMAGES: Many thanks to The Textile Research Centre of Leiden, for the montage of Gee’s Bend quilt postage stamp designs; to Catbird Quilts, via Pinterest, for the gorgeous Six-Pointed Star Medallion Quilt, and to The Spruce Crafts by Codysnana, via Pinterest, for the photo of the very striking Hoedown pattern grid quilt. The screen grab of West African Textile Patterns is from a Google Image Search. I want to thank the New York Times for the almost-15-minute video “While I Yet Live,” which includes comments from the quilters about their history, and lots of images of their wonderful quilts. Finally, I am indebted to Decor Arts Now, for the photo of the Michelle Obama portrait, the Milly dress, and several suggestive quilt patterns. I also want to thank Decor Arts for the photos of the Michelle Obama portrait, as well as the photos regarding the “influence elements” of the Milly dress and a collection of representative Gee’s Bend quilt designs.