Thursday, September 11, 2008

Architecture of the Quilt

Tonight, from 6 to 9 pm the Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting an opening celebration for Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, a show that celebrates the quilting tradition in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Since the mid-19th century African-American women in this tiny rural community, most of whom are the descendants of slaves, have been producing these visually stunning works, transforming an essential necessity into an art form through quilts that express their stories of family, community and basic human survival.

Gee’s Bend has historically been among the most isolated and impoverished places in the U.S. - a peninsula enclosed on three sides by a massive ‘bend’ in the Alabama River. Originally a plantation, it was abandoned by the owners during the Civil War. After emancipation, many of the freed slaves continued to make their living off the land as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in Gee’s Bend in 1965, urging locals to register to vote. Those who marched with King in nearby Selma were sent to jail, fired from their jobs, and often lost their homes. The ferry service that was a vital link connecting the town to Selma was abruptly cut off by the local government, and only resumed in 2006 (!!)

In spite of all this, these women have maintained a joyous artistic and cultural tradition. Their style is distinctive, bold, and sophisticated– more like Matisse or Mondrian than anything you’d see in a ‘traditional’ quilt show. They’ve passed their skills down through at least six generations to the present. The New York Times has called their quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."

Philadelphia is the final stop on a nationwide tour of these quilts. And ten of the Gee’s Bend quilters are joining us for the opening celebration tomorrow night. Some of them are in their 90s, but having met them all this morning I can tell you they’ve got tons of energy! Their stories are incredible. Meeting them is a rare treat.

1 comment:

Tamsen said...

Ha, sorry - Architecture.