Telling The Stories of American Experience Through Quilts

Exhibition Reviews

December 12, 2020

The use of textile in art was traditionally embraced by women, especially during Modernism with the examples found in the practices of the Russian avant-garde artists. However, aside from fashion design or tapestries, another textile-based craft, so to speak, is quilting, which had a lasting and notable role in different communities.

In the American context, quilting dates back to colonial times and has become a traditional technique of art-making passed from one generation to another. During the times of social and political change, the same has been used by the individuals affiliated with radical ideas and movements.

To shed new light on this phenomenon and analyze it thoroughly in historical terms, the Toledo Museum of Art decided to organize an extensive exhibition called Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson - The Ragmud Series: Volume 8, Slave Epics, 1987-2008. Mixed media. Toledo Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds given by Rita B. Kern and Dorothy Mackenzie Price, with additional support from the artist and Hammond Harkins Gallery, and Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William E. Levis, by exchange, 2008.174A-D

The Carries of New Messages

By underlining the socially-charged narratives critical of war and violence coming from the ones eager to represent civil rights, gender equality, queer aesthetics, as well as environmental issues, this exhibition tends to distort the common perception of the quilts as sentimental objects that emit tales of idyllic past.

With more than 30 quilts and textile-based works that evoke cultural diversity, a participative virtual quilting bee project, it reflects on how quilts became the carriers of new messages, powerful voices raised to spread social from the mid-19th century to the present.

The associate curator of American art at TMA and the exhibition curator, Lauren Applebaum, briefly emphasized the relevance of this topic:

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic and our country’s current reckoning with racial injustice, Radical Tradition takes on a particular urgency and relevance. Quilts have always engaged the pressing social and political issues of their time. They have been deployed throughout history by marginalized people to confront instances of violence, oppression, and exclusion. Today, they are a vital resource and medium for exploring some of the crises of our history as told through the eyes of women, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and the communities that formed around important social issues of the last two centuries. 

Left: Bisa Butler - The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake, 2020. Cotton, silk, wool, and velvet quilted and appliqué, 50 x 88 x 2 in. Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery, New York / Right: Therese Agnew - Portrait of a Textile Worker, Shorewood, WI, 2002. Clothing labels, thread, fabric backing, 94 1/2 x 109 3.4 in. Museum of Arts and Design, New York; purchase with funds provided by private donors, 2006. Photo: Peter DiAntoni

The Quilts of Past and Present

The current exhibition includes works by artists such as Faith Ringgold, Kathryn Clark, Sanford Biggers, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Diana Baird N’Diaye, Jeffrey Gibson, Aminah Robinson, Hank Willis Thomas, and Anna Von Mertens.

The installment also features panels from community quilt projects such as The International Honor Quilt (IHQ) initiated by the feminist art legend, Judy Chicago. Under the initial title International Quilting Bee, this project launched a public call for the participants from around the world to produce a triangular quilt honoring a woman of personal significance.

Another community quilt project that is displayed is the AIDS Memorial Quilt project created a few years later under the influence of Chicago’s initiative. It includes thousands of panels commemorating more than 100,000 people who died of AIDS-related complications.

The exhibition highlight is the work The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake (2020) by a critically acclaimed artist Bisa Butler; this composition made of quilted and appliqued silk, cotton, velvet, and wool, tells the story about the 19th-century abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass and his famous speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" delivered on July 5, 1852, to celebrate freedom during a time of slavery.

Another highlight is the work made by one of the quiltmakers from the Freedom Quilting Bee (FQB). This collective based in the rural, Black community of Alberta, Alabama, was established by local women in 1966, in the wake of the march from Selma to Montgomery, to provide employment to those who faced harassment and discrimination for registering to vote. Their production became adorned by the world of design and is often attributed as responsible for reviving nationwide quilting during the 1970s.

When it comes to historical artifacts, on display are: a 1917 Red Cross quilt that represents the civilian volunteer efforts during World War I with more than 500 names embroidered in the center of the quilt; an abolition quilt made around 1850; and the Vietnam Era Signature Quilt, made in the 1960s-1970s as a fundraiser for the reconstruction of a hospital in Vietnam that was destroyed by the U.S. Air Force. It includes the signatures of notable public figures such as Joan Baez, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, César Chávez, Jeanette Rankin, and Leonard Bernstein.

Left: Unknown Maker, Dachau 1945, 1945, Wool, 69 1/2 x 77 in., Michigan State University Museum Collection, 2015:66.2. Courtesy of Michigan State University Museum. Photographed by Pearl Yee Wong / Right: AIDS Memorial Quilt panel, NAMES Project. 12 x 12 ft.

Radical Tradition at the Toledo Museum of Art

In general, Radical Tradition tends to show how quilting and the specific use of materials have challenged the common preconceptions about art-making, as well as relevant social and political issues. The older quilts shown in the exhibition particularly indicate how this medium was one of the few accessible vehicles used by women coming from different cultural and social backgrounds for a political articulation. On the other hand, the later quilts show how this domestic craft was embraced as a subversive tool by different oppressed minorities.

The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive 100-page publication with an introduction by the curator.

Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change will be on display at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, until 14 February 2021.

Featured images: Judy Chicago - International Honor Quilt (IHQ), initiated by Judy Chicago in 1980, Created in response to The Dinner Party. Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville. © 2020 Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Aaron McIntosh - Twin Beds (Little Big Man & Bedroom Buddies), 2015-2020, quilting; digital textile print on cotton broadcloth, cotton batting, cotton muslin, thread, embroidery floss, 60 x 72 x 1 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist, Aaron McIntosh.

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