Brilliant colors, metallic thread and lots of gold lamé set the eyes spinning at "Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists," currently on view at the American Craft Museum in New York City.
For iridescence, Myrah Brown-Green's Khemetic Paradise is hard to beat. The artist uses the ancient name for the kingdom of Egypt, Khemit, as a way of paying homage to her African origins. The image of the scarab beetle, worked in metallic thread against a background of naïvely rendered plants and animals, symbolizes the goddess Het Heru and was thought to bring good luck. Less symbolic but equally colorful is Gwendolyn A. McGee's Crystalline Fantasy, with its shimmering, undulating plant forms composed of cotton fabric, netting and overlay.
Sandra German's more realistic underwater world, Peaceful Lagoon, has multiple borders to set off waters filled with plants, angelfish and a school of jellyfish. It is a marvel of sewing techniques, and employs unusual materials like Mylar gift-wrap, Lycra swimwear fabric, tulle and nylon organdy. Peaceful Lagoon was inspired by environmental concerns about drift-net fishing and won an award for celebrating the open sea.
Social protest comes in many forms. Betty Leacraft's Camouflage: A Means of Survival is really a mixed-media wall-and-floor installation that incorporates camouflage fatigues, religious cards, candles, photos and paint. It functions as a shrine to both Native and African Americans.
Very different is Ruth A. Ward's quietly moving The Guiding Star, dedicated to runaway slaves. Areas in pale-colored overdyed cotton are combined with traditional, pieced star squares to make the sky. Trees and figures are appliquéd, and star beads and metallic thread finish the haunting and original design.
Several of the quilters represented, all participants in the Women of Color Quilters Network, use jazzy patterned African textiles in their works, or fabrics that resemble them. Dindga McCannon mixes patterns and solids in cottons, spandex, beads and buttons to create one of the many pictorial quilts, The Family. It depicts a typical wedding party with, according to its maker, two ladies in the back who haven't spoken in years, but have called a temporary truce in honor of the day. McCannon juxtaposes traditional Muslim dress with contemporary clothing, adding jeweled and crocheted attachments.
Another outstanding work is by Frances Hare, a former dancer with Garth Fagan Dance. She dispenses with the usual rectangular-quilt format to stitch 16 Feet of Dance, a jagged-edged textile almost in the shape of the USA. Geometric patterns and spirals set the 16 pictured legs in motion. Also dazzling, but completely abstract, is Sandra Smith's Transitions. An explosion with shattered forms is conjured up in silks, cottons and lamé.
Curator Carolyn Mazloomi, who is a quilter and founding president of the Women of Color Quilters Network, and American Craft Museum chief curator David Revere McFadden have succeeded in stressing the tremendous variety in African American quilting right now.
The American Craft Museum is also currently hosting "Stop Asking, We Exist: 25 African-American Craft Artists," curated by Joyce Scott for the Society of Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh. Despite the defensive title, the show contains a lot of solid work in a slew of media, including fabric. Five artists have contributed quilts, ranging from Raymond Dobard's traditional White on White Doll Quilt in a grapevine design with trapunto (three-dimensional areas made by adding stuffing) to the wild and exciting, irregularly shaped and always vivid mixed-media pieces of Elizabeth Scott.
"Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists" is on view at the American Craft Museum, May 14-Oct. 10, 1999. It travels to the Mint Museum of Art in North Carolina, Jan.-Apr. 2000, and to the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., Sept. 2000-Jan. 2001.
"Stop Asking, We Exist: 25 African-American Craft Artists" is on view at the American Craft Museum May 14-Sept. 18, 1999. It travels to the New Bedford Museum of Art, New Bedford, Mass., Oct. 7-Jan.9, 2000, and to the Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Ala., Jan.31-March 26, 2000.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York based art historian and writer.