Saturday, February 6, 2010

Black Threads

Paul Harvey

The history of African American quilting has received much attention lately, and religious historians should take notice, for it’s way past time to incorporate material artifacts and art into our work more than we customarily do. I've recently been going through a veritable museum of southern religious folk art, astounding in its variety and imagination, sometimes for its sheer weirdness, other times for its heartfelt piety.

Unfortunately, some of the history of African American quilting has been subject to mythologizing and a good deal of assertion without much in the way of evidence (quilts as maps for the underground railroad, that sort of thing). This kind of myth-making, together with the normal obstacles confronting those seeking out solid information on nineteenth-century African American women, makes solid work in pre twentieth-century African American folk art a challenge -- see for example the controversy about the sankofa symbol at the African Burial Grounds in New York, whose African provenance recently has been called into question by scholar Erik Seeman (his article about this has just been published in the William and Mary Quarterly).

Recently author Kyra E. Hicks was kind enough to alert me to her new book This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces, and it was a fascinating text to peruse. Hicks maintains her own blog Black Threads here, and her relentless researching on her quest to uncover all the information she can about the famous quilter and folk artist Harriet Powers (whose work is displayed at the Smithsonian and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) would put many historians to shame. This I Accomplish mines numerous sources and presents an extensive bibliography for all those interested not only in Powers, but in the relationship of African American Christianity and folk arts such as quilts.

Here’s a description of Hicks’s work which summarizes the contents, and I hope will attract some attention to the work of this energetic researcher:

The powerful quilts of Harriet Powers (1837-1910), a former Athens, Georgia slave, continue to capture our imagination today. Her two-known creations, the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt, have independently survived since stitched more than a century ago. Over the years, thousands of museum visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have stood transfixed viewing her artwork. Powers' two quilts are arguably the most well-known and cited coverings in American quilt history. But, until today, no one has told the entire, dramatic story of how these two quilts, one of which initially sold for $5, were coveted, cared for, and cherished for decades in private homes before emerging as priceless, national treasures. This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilts and Other Pieces brings to light new, exciting facts - many never before published: complete exhibition history for both known quilts; proof Harriet Powers was a literate, award-winning quilter, who stitched at least five quilts and promoted her own artwork; profiles of the two nineteenth century women who sought to purchase the Bible Quilt; profiles of the three men who once owned the Pictorial Quilt; unveiling of a young artist who embellished the Pictorial Quilt; and the name of the person who first made the connection in the twentieth century that Harriet Powers stitched both quilts. This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilts and Other Pieces is the most comprehensive resource guide on this influential African American quilter. The book includes nearly 200 bibliographic references, most annotative, including books, exhibition catalogs, newspapers, plays, poetry, interactive map and more. For the first time ever, readers are provided with clues and encouraged to search for Harriet Powers' lost 1882 Lord's Supper Quilt. This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilts and Other Pieces is written by Kyra E. Hicks, a quilter whose story quilts have appeared in over forty group exhibitions in places such as the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the American Folk Art Museum in NY. Hicks is the author of Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook and Martha Ann's Quilt for Queen Victoria. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Hicks provides also a panel-by-panel explanation of the Bible Quilt, shown above and on display at the Smithsonian. Here's my favorite, bottom row, second from right: "Christ with his disciples at the Last Supper . . . it is Judas Iscariot who is 'clothed in drab, being a little off-color in character.'"


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