Fabric of a Nation
A quote hangs on the wall at the entrance to Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, a current exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It observes that the fact that quilts are soft and warm may make them suitable vehicles for discussions of hard subjects. That juxtaposition echoes through the exhibition of quilts, historic and contemporary, by an unlikely combination of creators: a group of fourth graders, an erotica artist, political activists, and a handful of Gee’s Bend traditionalists. Many quilts are, alas, by “unidentified artist.”
The quilts stitched in bygone times appear to have been made for use, for warmth, with scraps of materials repurposed to serve a need different from the original. As such, they are more utilitarian. But for the families who used and passed down the quilts, they are also personal histories: remnants of a father’s shirt, or names of family members stitched onto the fabric.
Some quilts are made to deliver a message. Artist Sylvia Hernandez weaves a circle of weapons (above) and demands to know #HOWMANYMORE? “Blanket of Red Flowers” (not pictured) by Agusta Agustsson, depicts male genitalia in a repeated three dimensional pattern. Early in its history, it had the distinction of actually being “banned in Boston.” Apparently no longer.
For pure, astounding artistic complexity, it’s obvious why “To God and Truth”(2019) by Bisa Butler (top, and detail, just above) is featured in many reviews of this exhibition. Butler was inspired by a 1899 photograph of the Morris Brown College baseball team; Morris Brown College was among the first colleges established for African Americans by African Americans. Her athletes are life-sized. She combined fabrics of African origin—“hand-woven Kente cloth, Nigerian hand-dyed batiks, and African and Dutch wax-resist printed cottons.”
Virginia Jacobs sought to liberate the quilt from its traditional places on the bed or on the wall, entertaining the challenge of quilt art that was freestanding. She says:
It took six months to create, and I had no way of knowing if it would work. At last, we tried inflating it with a vacuum cleaner on reverse in front of a camera—just in case it only lasted ten seconds I’d at least have the photo! It did work and since then “Krakow Kabuki Waltz” [above] has traveled the country and Japan to reach its “forever home” at the MFA, where I hope visitors will enjoy walking around it to experience the changing view of a quilted “form in space.”
Admission to the exhibition is a steep $32, which includes general admission to the remainder of the Museum. Wandering through the American art wing, I encountered a wall of Bierstadts large and small and was surprised by a Kehinde Wiley (below).
Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories is on view until January 17, 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Timed tickets are required. (Photos by Susan B. Apel)
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.