Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: #MeToo

Influences: the quilts and quilters of Gee’s Bend

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 Newmanor 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).

They could’ve Googled it: this screen grab shows the results of a Google Image Search for “West African Textiles.”

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 Bendfor 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.
At left, the “Runway version” of the Milly dress by Michelle Smith; at right, a variety of Gee’s Bend quilt designs.

For one example, a younger Amy Sheraldwhose 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.

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 4. You say you want a revolution?

My mid-week posts this month have been a series of meditations upon what I think are outmoded science fictional tropes, be they ever so time-hallowed. There are just some times and settings in which I can’t suspend my disbelief of these extrapolations.

The series was inspired by my thoughts while reading Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. Let’s get this straight, right off the top: I have some issues with it, but it’s still a wonderful space opera, well crafted and thoroughly worth reading.

So worthwhile, in fact, that the SyFy Channel has turned it and the other books of the highly successful Expanse series into a TV show, also called The Expanse, which is in its third season as I write this. In particular, my comments center upon Ceres Station, its population, and its governance, as portrayed in the book.

I compiled a short list of outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.

Last week I examined the reasons why I think a highly educated and intelligent work force of relatively few people, supervising lots of robots, were a far more realistic and likely extrapolation than a dense population of “expendable” humanity.

I also said I thought that Silicon Valley and the current aerospace industry–not the coal mines and textile mills of yesteryear–were the likelier model for ideas about what you’d find among workers in space.

Granted, the tunnels of Ceres do bear something of a resemblance to the visual effect of this Industrial-Revolution-era coal mine. And the leadership’s disdain for the denizens of this world seems about on par with this era. But I think it’s a misleading extrapolation.

Today I want to take on the questions of human rights and quality of life issues–and explain why I think the government of Ceres, as portrayed in Leviathan Wakes, wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long as it apparently did, even with Star Helix Security activating in its most fascist mode.

It was never clear to me exactly what sort of governing system Earth supposedly had set up on Ceres (don’t look to the wiki for help, either), but it clearly wasn’t a representative democracy. Why not? Apparently, we readers weren’t supposed to ask or care, and the residents certianly weren’t supposed to weigh in on the matter.

Which means it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why there might be unrest. Seriously, people! Nobody needed a gang problem (although the form of government certainly might foster one) to foment unrest on Ceres. Heck sake, the quality of the food alone probably set off riots! (remember: fungi and fermentation only. Yeep).

The food alone ought to set off riots on Ceres. Given the abysmal governance, no wonder the locals got restless!

But given the realities I foresee for the “immediate to intermediate future” of space, whether the governing body is a corporate overlord or a government, the days of the “company store,” debt bondage, and indentured servitude would either be a non-starter or at the very least won’t last very long in a realistic future setting.

Rational human beings will recognize those ideas for the royal shafting they are (as they always have, truth be told), and they will sooner or later find a way to overturn it.

I’m extrapolating that only the bright and well-educated will make it into space–the career-driven, who wouldn’t know what do do with a baby. But they certainly will know what to do with anyone who tries to mess with their freedom of speech or assembly. How long did the Gilded Age last? Two decades? And they didn’t have the Internet. I’m betting on much, much sooner than later.

But if Silicon Valley is a more likely model than a coal mining company town, we’re still not out of the woods–and in that way, the Ceres of Leviathan Wakes is all too realistic: the misogyny in this world is at times breathtaking. I’m writing this on the other side of #MeToo, but this is one battle that is very far from being won, yet.

I haven’t read the whole series, so I don’t know if the misogyny changes later on–but changing science fiction culture itself to stifle misogyny is not for the faint of heart. If you remember Gamergate, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t click on that link!

All I’m saying is, The Expanse series is supposed to begin a couple centuries on from now. Sisters, if we haven’t raised consciousness and kicked some butt by then, God help us!

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; to Fact File for the coal mining photo;  to Vox, for the photo of a riot on Ceres from The Expanse; and to Shout Lo, for the “Equality Loading” imageI deeply appreciate all of you!

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