Quilts are a democratic art. They provide a window into the lives of the many people who have made and used textiles, in geographic, political, social and economic contexts. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), from October 10, 2021 to January 17, 2022, Fabric of a Nation: American Quilts Stories presents 50 remarkable works created by women and men, famous and unidentifiable people, urban and rural creators and members of the Black, Latin, Indigenous, Asian and LGBTQIA + communities. The exhibition explores how the quilting, which is often considered today as a timeless and uniquely “American” art form, has in fact continuously evolved, shaped by a largely unrecognized diversity of artistic hands and minds. Dating from the 17th century to the present day, the masterpieces on display reveal a rich – and richly complicated – history of the nation’s common history, helping to evolve the conversation about what defines the American experience.
“Fabric of a nation represents the MFA’s continued commitment to broaden our perspectives and reconsider long-held notions of what constitutes American art and the American experience, ”said Matthew Teitelbaum, director of Ann and Graham Gund. “With this exhibition, we invite our visitors to consider not only the objects themselves, but also the stories of their creators and the tales – often overlooked for too long – that they wish us remembered.”
The exhibition brings together for the first time the only two existing quilts made by Harriet Powers (1837-1910), a former slave woman from Athens, Georgia. The MFA’s iconic pictorial quilt (1895-1898) is on display alongside the Biblical Quilt (1885-1886), on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, a historic union that sheds new light on extraordinary artistic and storytelling talents by Powers. Fabric of a nation Also presents several new acquisitions of the MFA by contemporary artists who both draw on the centuries-old tradition of quilt making and use the medium to investigate alternative narratives, aesthetics and politics. These works, presented for the first time at the Museum and interspersed among the historical works in the exhibition, include pieces by Sanford Biggers (born in 1970), Bisa butler (born in 1973), Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka [Mohawk], born in 1961), Sylvie Hernandez (born in 1961), Carolyn Mazloomi (born in 1948), Tomie nagano (born in 1950), Rowland ricketts (born in 1971), Gio swaby (born in 1991) and Michael C. Thorpe (born in 1993).
“Universally attractive, quilts have become a truly democratic art,” said Jennifer Swope, David and Robert Logie, associate curator of textile and fashion arts. “With a collection of over 300 masterpieces spanning the 17th century to the present day, the MFA is ideally placed to undertake an exhibition that explores the art of quilts. It has been exciting making new acquisitions and connecting the work of living artists with our historical treasures, offering a fresh take on a familiar medium and a familiar story. “
The exhibition is organized thematically into seven sections. The introductory section titled “Who / what is America?” “ invites visitors to explore these open questions through five quilts that span 150 years. Among these is the Vote (1975) quilt made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama by Irene williams (1920-2015), which is presented alongside two other works evoking the American flag, and To God and to the truth (2019), the most important and ambitious work to date by a contemporary quilter Bisa butler (born 1973).
Set against the backdrop of the global textile trade between the American colonies and the expanding empires of Spain and Great Britain, the quilts featured in the second section, “Invisible hands” honor the contributions of individuals, many of whom are enslaved, who have contributed to the creation of the works themselves or to the cultivation of the materials used to make them. In addition to the quilts that were cherished by prosperous white Americans in the 18th century, this section features contemporary pieces from Tomie nagano (born in 1950) and Rowland ricketts (born 1971), which explore the history of indigo production.
The works exhibited in the section entitled “Create a nation” enter a period of growth, when, after the War of Independence (1775-1783), the United States extended its territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Meanwhile, emerging urban centers like Baltimore offered new roles for women, who used their household skills to supplement household income by designing and sewing quilt blocks or weaving. However, this period of increasing prosperity in the new country also occurred at the expense of the African American slaves who worked the plantation fields as demand for cotton increased and the Native American and Hispanic settlers who were displaced by the westward expansion.
The fourth part, “Conflict without resolution” presents seven plays that explore the Civil War (1861-1865) and the legacy of slavery in the United States, from the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement to the recent protests for Black Lives Matter. Large-scale works on display include a Civil War Zouave quilt (probably mid to late 1860s) made in part from the uniform of Union troops, which depicts General Ulysses S. Grant leading a charge on the Confederate city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Dream 2: the king and the sorority through Gold Faith Ring (born 1930), which portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. surrounded by Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Ella Baker. The most recent works, produced in 2020 by Carolyn Mazloomi (born in 1948) and Michael C. Thorpe (born 1993), evoke continued calls for racial justice.
The section entitled “Quilts as art” celebrates the evolution of quilts into a famous national art form, highlighting the achievements of Harriet Powers (1837-1910) and other quilters whose names have been lost in creating extraordinary quilts, not for the home, but for the walls of county, state and even international fairs.
America went through tremendous change at the turn of the 20th century, yet quilts and blankets continued to hold their place in people’s hearts and homes. The sixth section, “Modern myths” presents dazzling examples of what became the symbol of American virtue and ingenuity from the Great Depression (1929-1933) until the beginning of the period following World War II (1939-1945). These include quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, where African American women such as Rachel Carey George (1908-2011) and Creola Bennett Pettway (1927-2015) created powerfully imaginative bedspreads that transcend utility, and a quilt on loan from the National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco and made by fourth-graders of Japanese descent at a camp in internment in Poston, Arizona.
Works on display in “Make the difference” explore how the medium has been continually rediscovered by new generations who have used it for artistic expression, social protest or commemoration. The section begins in the 1970s with quilts by young artists who challenged hierarchies in the art world, including childhood friends Susan hoffmann (born 1953) and Molly upton (1953-1977), who shared a studio in Cambridge, Mass. The exhibition concludes with the work of contemporary artists, including Sylvie Hernandez (born in 1961), Gio swaby (born in 1991) and Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka [Mohawk], born 1961) – who use quilting to address a myriad of issues such as gun violence, the legacy of black body violence and trauma, Black Joy’s resilience, and Indigenous sovereignty.
The theme of making a difference continues in a visitor engagement space outside of the exhibition galleries, which showcases the work of contemporary quilters and guilds creating impact within their own communities. Here, visitors can also browse an interactive database of the more than 48,000 panels that make up the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which commemorates more than 125,000 people who have died of complications from AIDS.