By Arwen O’Reilly
On Saturday, I went to see some of the quilters from Gee’s Bend (see previous post on the exhibit of the quilts) talk at the De Young Museum. There was a huge, eclectic and passionate crowd there, eagerly awaiting the arrival of “the ladies,” as everyone seems to call them. They entered singing a spiritual (in the wonderful film about them that shows in the museum’s exhibit, it mentions that the women think that one of the most important aspects of their work is the singing they do while they make the quilts) and were introduced by the museum’s curator. It was an emotional moment; most of the women are very elderly (there were two representatives from the younger generation, but one woman is 92!) and it was clearly a wonderful experience for them to be so appreciated. It was certainly the first time I’ve ever seen quilters get a standing ovation!
William Arnett, the man who has been championing the work of these quilters for years and has worked tirelessly to get the quilts into museums, introduced the women with a stinging and quite funny denouncement of the racial situation in the United States today and the contemporary art world that was so suspicious of showing the quilts as art. After that, the floor was opened for questions and comments by the quilters. A lot of people shared stories of learning to quilt or being inspired by the show, which was wonderful to hear, but frustrating for those of us who wanted to hear more about the quiltmaking. Mary Lee Bendolph talked about the importance of their independent vision: “No one was going to see them, so I only did what was good for me and my family.” (There’s a wonderful book that was published this year called Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt that goes into more detail about the visual influences and aesthetic decisions the women made in making the quilts.) They also talked a lot about the friendly spirit of competition that kept the visual style constantly evolving in the close-knit community, and the importance of passing down the tradition to the younger generation. After a while, the Oakland Heritage Choir came in and sang a bunch of hymns and spirituals, even calling upon the audience and the ladies to dance and sing along.
It was the most exuberant lecture I’ve been to in a long time! It was really incredible to hear the stories of poverty and oppression (the Gee’s Bend ferry, the only way out of the community to nearby jobs, was shut down in the 1960s to stop black voters from registering) and to see the beauty and joy that was able to survive using only the simplest materials and incredible skill. I came away from the talk completely humbled and inspired.
For those of you in the Bay Area, the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit will be up until the end of December, and there’s a related exhibit comparing a few of the quilts to African textiles at the Museum of the African Diaspora in SOMA that is up until October 16th. Link.
More photos from the event – Link.