February 4, 2023

AAnyone who thought abstract art was a club of white male “lonely geniuses” received an unexpected jolt in 2002 when quilts from the tiny Alabama hamlet of Gee’s Bend toured US museums for the first time. The quilts’ rich hues, scissor shapes, and improvised visual rhythms earned them comparisons to Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. Their creators were a multi-generational community of African-American women who still work today in the tiny metropolitan area that was once a slave-owning plantation.

For Legacy Russell, an American feminist theorist and curator, the impact of quilters has only increased in the two decades since that breathtaking museum tour. The New Bend, the touring exhibition she curated, explores the legacy of Gee’s Bend quilters and artists still working in their lineage, and brings together a 13-strong lineup of radical textile artists.

Sojourner Truth Parsons applies quilting methodology to vibrant paintings whose dancing, tumbling geometries in summery sky blue and tangerine are reminiscent of Matisse’s necklines. “While she is a painter, she was inspired by quilting in her own family traditions,” says Russell of the artist, who has Mi’kmaq, African-Canadian and settler heritage. “Quilting teaches how these artists can expand their visual realm.”

The importance of quilting as a way for marginalized people to express themselves is key for each artist in the exhibition. Russell seeks to expand how the achievements of quilters are understood in a way that goes beyond the condescending labels of “craft” or “folk art.” “These are labels that have a very challenging history because they’re immensely racist, classified, and gendered,” she says.

2017’s The Right to (My) Life by Atlanta’s Dawn Williams Boyd plays with quilts’ associations with home comfort and security and their place in women’s lives. The crowd scene features a concerned black mother with her arms wrapped protectively around her young family, while anti-abortion activists wave banners and a thoughtful-looking white woman is escorted from her chauffeur-driven car. “Dawn calls her work ‘Fabric Paintings’ to reverse our assumptions about what painterly practice might look like,” says Russell.

The resurgence of craft has typically been cited as an antidote to online living, with a focus on touch, collaborative practice, and a slower pace of creation. Yet it is the connection between textile history and computer technology that interests Russell, whose recent book Glitch Feminism addresses the potential for fluid identities in the digital age. For example, punch cards used to create weaving patterns on looms paved the way for the binary code that would make the first computers possible. The technical prowess of textiles is at the forefront of Ctrl+Alt+Del, a jacquard-woven tapestry by New Yorker Qualeasha Wood, in which she positions herself as a self-created deity: a halo selfie on her computer desktop, surrounded by celestial emojis and Clouds.

The themes of Gee’s Bend quilters – from their artistic innovations to the political implications and community stories of their work – have been taken up by artists from around the world. “The quilters of Gee’s Bend are not in our rear view,” confirms the curator. “They all do together at the same point in history. We ask, ‘What does this dialogue really look like?’”

The New Radicals… three more highlights from The New Bend

Ctrl+Alt+Del by Qualeasha Wood, 2021.
Photo: Qualasha Wood/Kendra Jayne Patrick

Ctrl+Alt+Del by Qualeasha Wood, 2021
Qualeasha Wood’s tapestry brings a medium once reserved for the ruling class into a contemporary online world where individuals are free to create their own identities. It is made on a jacquard loom, the punched cards of which paved the way for the development of computers.

Basil Kincaid's Midnight Prayers & The Journey of Becoming, 2022.
Photo: Basil Kincaid Studio

Basil Kincaid’s Midnight Prayers & The Journey of Becoming, 2022
Basil Kincaid comes from a long matriarchal line of quilters and, like that at Gee’s Bend, uses donated or found fabrics to create silhouetted figures that explore black history and trauma.

Painting 2 of the Shrine of Zadie Xa: Western Yellowcedar, 2022
Photo: Keith Lubow/Zadie Xa/Hauser & Wirth

Painting 2 of the Shrine of Zadie Xa: Western Yellowcedar, 2022
As curator Russell notes, “Artists from all backgrounds have been influenced by Gee’s Bend.” Korean-Canadian artist Zadie Xa draws on ancient Korean feminist shamanism and the communal quilting traditions of rural women.

The New Bend is on view at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, through May 8th.

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