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Stitching Oakland’s History into Painterly Quilts

Professional Oakland Teams by Ernestina Tril_37x45_Cotton Quilt
Ernestina Tril, “Professional Oakland Teams” (All images courtesy African American Quilt Guild of Oakland)

Last year, the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland (AAQGO) — a group of about 80 women who meet monthly at senior centers amid sheafs of fabric and spools of colorful thread — embarked on an ambitious project: They would create narrative quilts that told the complex social, political, and cultural history of their California city. More than 100 of these quilts are now on view in Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland, a citywide exhibition spanning locations from the Oakland City Hall Rotunda to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center.

Clare Briggs (1875–1930), “The Original Cubist,” New York Evening Sun, April 1, 1913 (image via armory.nyhistory.org)
Clare Briggs, “The Original Cubist,” New York Evening Sun, April 1, 1913 (image via armory.nyhistory.org)

In the tired art versus craft debate, many in the elitist contemporary art world might see quilting as strictly craft, or at the very least a folksy and dated tradition — and this bias isn’t new. During the 1913 Armory Show, one cartoonist even disparaged the newfangled Cubism by comparing it to a grandmother’s quilt. “I tuk the first prize at ‘The Fair Last Fall’,” the woman in the panel boasts in a folksy manner. The contemporary viewer probably recognizes the sexism and classism in the comic, even if we also know that the same type of bias lingers well into our own day.

Many of AAQGO’s quilts look more like abstract collages or oil landscapes than patchworks, so painterly and expressionistic is their makers’ use of thread and fabric. There’s nothing stereotypically grandmotherly about them, though many were technically made by grandmothers.

Clemons Dorsey_Jackie_Avoid being Arrested_42x53
Jackie Clemons Dorsey, “Avoid Being Arrested” (2016)

The tradition of telling stories through quilts is a long and rich one in African-American culture, and the AAQGO is one of many guilds around the country carrying on this tradition in response to 21st century social issues. Many of these quilts are fiercely political and address Oakland’s history of racial issues as well as the country’s bubbling racial tensions. In “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” Jackie Houston silhouetted Black Lives Matter protesters and slogans behind an intricately stitched portrait of a her seven-year-old grandson with his hands up. Jackie Clemens Dorsey sewed cut-out footprints to frame the phrase “At what pace must a black man walk to avoid being arrested?” Ora Knowell, who lost two sons to gun violence in Oakland, and later started the nonprofit West Oakland Lower Bottom Fatherless Children’s Foundation, created “Black Justice Matters,” in which a man clings to the unbalanced scales of justice.

Marsha Carter, “Delilah Leontium Beasley”

Other quilts are celebratory: Marsha Carter pays homage to Delilah Leontium Beasley, who in the 1920s became the first African-American female columnist to be published in a major mainstream metropolitan newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. Ora Clay created a cloth rendition of the city’s Paramount movie theater against a star-spangled midnight blue for “Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.” Ernestina Till made a patchwork banner of Oakland Raiders and Warriors logos in homage to the city’s beloved sports teams.

Ora Clay, “Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame”

Still other quilters drew inspiration from Bay Area landscapes: Carolyn Pope, in “A Day at the Lake,” envisions Lake Merritt and the Oakland skyline as a medley of neon greens and blues, accented with a man in a Raiders sweatshirt. Marion Coleman illustrated the Oakland and Berkeley hill fires of 1991 in “Firestorm,” stitching silhouetted trees against a blaze of orange and yellow fabric.

Collectively, the images form a sweeping vision of Oakland in cloth; if all 100 quilts were themselves stitched together, the resulting massive patchwork would tell a story as layered and complex as the city that inspired it.

Marion Coleman, “Trail Blazers”
Carolyn Pope, “A Day at the Lake”
Rosita Thomas, “Oakland’s Jewels”

Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland is on view in Oakland, California until October 27th; check here for specific dates and locations.

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