A modest but eye-opening new exhibition features practical works of art from the collection of a scholar on American quilts.
One orange quilt stitched with flowers commands attention from across the gallery. The fabric looks fresh and new and vivid. Wall text reveals it was made by a former slave in 1860.
Another work features a repeating pattern of red shoes, below. It looks like pop art, but it predates the movement by 70 years. The quilt was once used in advertising by a shoe shop. Warhol would’ve loved it.
A more recent work by the artist Faith Ringold celebrates the life of entertainer Josephine Baker. This and other quilts are put together with bits of fabric and scraps of cloth, leftovers put to good use.
Some quilts represent a kind of family album, depicting genealogy and legacy. Always the graphics are compelling and the stories rich.
One work was decidedly not done by an African-American artist. It features a repetition of the Mammy stereotype, below, a stark divergence to the real lives alluded to in the other quilts in the show.
DuSable President Perri Irmer shared a surprising fact with Chicago Tonight: “There was a West African tradition of quilting, which was actually done by men. And so when you begin to come to the U.S. and think of quilting and needlework as women’s work, it’s really an interesting contrast with the traditional African sewing and quilt-making by men.”
Amani Conley of the DuSable Museum added: “The textile tradition began around 4,000 or 5,000 B.C. in Africa. You have traditional kente cloth from the people of Ghana, and you also have what they call the ‘mudcloth’ which is from the area of Mali. So we see these techniques brought over to the new world and applied.”
The works come from the collection of Cuesta Benberry (1923 – 2007), a historian who made a reputation as a scholar of the diverse contributions by African-Americans to the practical art of quilting.
Considering that most of these textile-based works of art are made from cotton, their history becomes all the more poignant.
“Unpacking Collections: The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry” will be at the DuSable Museum of African American History through February 2017. The traveling exhibition comes from the Michigan State University Museum, home of the Great Lakes Quilt Center.
Note: This story originally aired on "Chicago Tonight" on Dec. 8.
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