A Review of ‘From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts’ at the Montclair Art Museum

Among the 29 quilts on view at the Montclair Art Museum is the “Roman Stripes Britchy Quilt,” by Lureca Outland. Credit Association Purchase, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala.
Among the 29 quilts on view at the Montclair Art Museum is the “Roman Stripes Britchy Quilt,” by Lureca Outland. Credit Association Purchase, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala.

Quilts made by African-African women in the rural South — historically one of the least represented groups in the institutional art world — have become widely popular in recent decades. The spike of interest coincides with a growing focus on craft and folk art, possibly because of major museum exhibitions, like one at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002 featuring the quilts of Gee’s Bend, a hamlet in southwest Alabama.

Some critics have suggested that the quilts are interesting to contemporary art followers because their geometric patterns recall modernist abstract painting. Others have argued that African-American quilts are really part of the African diaspora of textile production, while still others point out the connection with 18th- and 19th-century European quilting techniques.

“From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, does not wade into these issues. Given the scope and history of African-American quilt making, the exhibition is a tiny sampling of 29 quilts. (The Whitney show included 60.) Nonetheless, the show offers examples of the major types and genres.

For instance, there are the geometric quilts from Gee’s Bend, originally the site of a slave plantation. Gee’s Bend quilts, like many in the show, were traditionally made from castoff clothing or cornmeal sacks to help those in unheated shacks keep warm. What has grown out of these humble, utilitarian origins are works like Mary Lee Bendolph’s “Strings” (2003-4), which uses strips of cloth to make a vibrant, animated pattern.

Other geometric patterns include the Pig Pen (or Housetop) and Log Cabin variations. “Pig Pen Quilt,” made by an unknown quilter from Tuscaloosa in the late 20th century, features bright red and white concentric squares with a solid red square at its center. Another Gee’s Bend artist, Plummer T. Pettway, is represented by “Housetop/Strip Quilt” from around 1960 to 1970, which uses a similar concentric-square construction.

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Source: The New York Times | MARTHA SCHWENDENER

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