Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Quilts of Gee's Bend at the De Young Museum

Lily deSaussure

Gee’s Bend, Alabama has been geographically, socially and economically isolated for decades until recently. The craft of quilting particular to this area has caught the attention of the country and beyond, resulting in a traveling exhibition now on view at the De Young museum.

An interesting point about shows of craft work is that they draw a greater audience, most likely because the methods and materials are more common and therefore, people are able to relate in terms of process and function. Craft has the ability to break down barriers between viewers who claim they don’t understand or know anything about art and the work itself. Craft is potentially a means for reaching a larger number of viewers with a message – it can function as a political act and it sometimes does quite successfully. In the case of the Gee’s Bend quilts, craft plays a central role in exposing a not-so-pretty aspect of our country’s history.

Gee’s Bend has existed in extreme poverty since slavery was abolished and wealthy plantation owners moved elsewhere. Freed slaves took over the land and took up residence in abandoned homes… only they were not exactly free as they were without and economy and cut off from the rest of Alabama’s.

This seclusion also contributed to the development of a unique genre of quilting. Techniques had been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Quilting, as a craft, was a skill that these women learned, spent incredible amounts of time doing and eventually mastered. They produced quilts out of necessity in order to keep their families warm at night. Old work cloths were transformed into pattern, line and composition when stitched together. Quilting provided an outlet for these women’s expression, wherein they were allowed to push and challenge their creativity. More recent quilts have elaborate use of material and color, and stitching has become decorative in addition to functional.

The discovery of the Gee’s Bend quilts by the outside world has certainly had a positive effect on their community (especially in terms of economy). However, I can’t help but question the motivation behind the sudden rush of fame these women have experienced. The quilts have been dragged into a completely different world (the art world) than their own, having been placed in a museum with Diebenkorns and Joan Mitchells in the next room and Claus Oldenburg right outside the window. I mean, the motivations for making the quilts were so simple, human and honorable. They are so far removed from privilege and elitism that has been perpetuated in the western art world forever. Then when plopped into a museum setting, the exposure of this country’s ugly past of slavery (also economic and class related issues that still exist) are brushed gently to the side. Can this be avoided when displaying work like these quilts? I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong, the De Young does an amazing job of showcasing craft on the level of fine art, which is important. It’s just that I question these issues because the original context of the work calls for it no matter what.

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