I was excited to see the quilts, because much has been made of them in the art quilt world, and in various other places like Auburn University’s program in Women’s Studies.
The basic story behind them is that a community of African American women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, well off the beaten track, were making quilts out of old clothes, much like women have been doing for many hundreds of years, but were “discovered” as art in 2002. They’ve been circulating all kinds of museums since then.
There is something striking about these quilts, but I’m disappointed in them after all the hype. And it may not be the quilts themselves that I’m disappointed in, but rather the hype.
The workmanship is, well, haphazard. The designs are quite wonderful, and the way the different, non-traditional fabrics are used. But to call them invaluable works of art, and to wax rhapsodic about their cultural significance just seems a little over the top to me. It all smacks of “let’s make some money” — not on the part of the quiltmakers themselves, but by those who “discovered” them. And, indeed, there have been some lawsuits filed (Reg may be req’d) by some of the quiltmakers who feel they’ve been taken advantage of.
What really struck me about the exhibit itself was that the written materials surrounding the quilts were not at all representative of the context in which the quilts were made. In fact, given the level of education prevalent among the quiltmakers themselves, they would not understand any of it if they were to read it. It’s so much empty, pretentious rhetoric, not part of the world in which the quilts were actually made. And I find that maddening.
There were a couple of different videos looping that showed people in the community, and in their own words, that did much more service to the quilts than the art-speak-babble. If only the rest of the exhibit had been framed this same way.
I don’t think the quilts are culturally insignificant, but I don’t see them as fine art, either. Folk art, yes, and they should be presented as such.