PASADENA, Calif. — “SHUT UP and Listen,” proclaims a quilt in bold, red letters. It shows a muted American flag, hung upside down on its phantom flagpole. The aggressive “SHUT UP” is rendered in darker red fabric, like oxidized blood. But the message softens with the word “Listen,” looped in beautiful script, using sweeter reds and an assemblage of floral, plaid, and paisley fabrics. The quilt is willing to have a conversation if I’m willing to hold my tongue.
Jessica Wohl’s quilt was just one of many beckoning calls to action at QuiltCon 2018, the Modern Quilt Guild’s annual convention, held at the Pasadena Convention Center late February. The guild launched in 2009, after quilters making innovative, nontraditional works began forming connections online and realized they weren’t alone in their experimentation. The guild has established chapters internationally, in which quilters come together and show their work, workshop new techniques, and build a community.
Embedded in this year’s quilt show, which featured over 350 works, were acts of protest. They carried messages like “strong women taught us to quilt…and to fight,” “rise up, resist,” and simply, “oh no.” Others depicted difficult, but insightful, interpretations of mass incarceration, police brutality, school shootings, and acts of terror. The need quilters have felt to channel their frustrations into their craft during Trump’s America was palpable. But the members of the Modern Quilt Guild are also continuing a very old tradition of using the quilt as a tool for resistance.
Activist works utilizing textile arts, or “craftism,” is often cited as emerging in the 1980s, when Cleve Jones began the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as a way to commemorate each life lost to the virus in the height of its outbreak. Protest quilts, however, have been traced to as early as the 18th century. Some were made during times of upheaval, such as Lucinda Ward Honstain’s “Reconciliation Quilt,” pieced in 1867, which depicts key moments of the Civil War and juxtaposes them with scenes from the artist’s family’s life in New York City. Other protest quilts were made as acts of defiance. Imprisoned after American forces overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani sewed a quilt recording the events that led to Hawaii’s colonization. At the center of the block, she stitched “Imprisoned at Iolani Palace…we began the quilt here,” positioning the quilt as a historical marker, one that pushes against whitewashing and preserves Hawaii’s struggles under Queen Liliʻuokalani’s terms.
Many protest quilts take to storytelling, such as Faith Ringgold’s painted narrative quilts. She draws from her position as a Civil Rights leader and her childhood during the Harlem Renaissance to make quilts centered on African American history. One of her more political works is “Flag Story quilt” (1985), a hand-painted and -dyed American flag in which the stars are substituted with anonymous white faces. Embroidered into the alternating white stripes, she tells the story of a black quadriplegic Vietnam veteran falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman. In 2016, Ringgold’s provocative storytelling inspired a special exhibit of works at QuiltCon sewn by high schoolers who collaborated with the Social Justice Sewing Academy, a grassroots organization that fosters dialogues around issues like Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, sexual assault, and gun violence. The quilts did not shy away from depicting traumatic events like the murder of Eric Garner, or the mass shooting that took 58 lives at a country music festival in Las Vegas last October.
Back at the juried show, some quilters broke away from narrative quilts and used minimalist designs punctuated by questions and calls to action. They display feminist slogans, like “women’s rights are human rights,” and attempt to empower viewers with messages like “your words fucking matter” and “we must try.” The quilt that won the People’s Choice award, “She Was Warned” by Liz Harvatine, expertly embroiders “nevertheless, she persisted,” all throughout an American flag, and is ready to be worn over someone’s shoulders at the Women’s March, crowned with a hand-knitted pussy hat.
The quilts at the convention could be easily commercialized, and yet, these pieced-together phrases still combat the stereotype that quilting is an activity for your polite, but racist, grandmother left behind in flyover country. A feminist quilt still shocks — last March, two quilts at the Tucson Quilters Guild annual show — one anti-Trump, and one pro-immigration — were subjects of controversy. Some people asked that the pieces be removed, but the guild stood by the works. Modern quilters want us to know that the political landscape is changing, and they have joined the resistance.
At QuiltCon there were panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which now has over 96,000 blocks and continues to grow. Each panel towered over viewers, amplifying the magnitude of AIDS’ toll on life. Not far from this display was Juli Smith’s “B4U,” a tribute to Heather Heyer, the activist killed during the white supremacist march in Charlottesville last August. Seen so close together, it was not hard to imagine “B4U” added to a quilt commemorating the lives of activists. After all, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has inspired many other collaborative projects, like the Monument Quilt, which shares stories from survivors of rape and abuse, and Arts for Recovery’s Breast Cancer Quilt Project.
Though QuiltCon 2018 has wrapped, expect next year’s convention to carry similar narratives of social justice and stark rallying calls. Tensions remain high, and textile artists from all backgrounds won’t give up on centuries of making their voices heard through craft because, as Lysa Flower quilts, “you can’t you won’t and you don’t stop.”
QuiltCon 2018 presented by the Modern Quilt Guild took place at the Pasadena Convention Center (300 E Green St, Pasadena, Calif.) on February 22–25.
LA’s Hammer Museum Wants to Be Seen
After two decades of renovations, the museum that calls itself a “well-kept secret” reopens with a mission to be more visible.
AI-Generated “Dope Francis” Fools the Internet
Many thought the picture of Pope Francis in a puffer jacket, created using Midjourney, was the real deal.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
1,400-Year-Old Mural of Two-Faced Man Found in Peru
Historians hypothesize that the Moche paintings could represent artists’ attempts to experiment with portraying movement or narrative.
Louvre Shutters as Pension Plan Protests Intensify
President Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 has sparked widespread demonstrations across the country.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
They Managed to Mess Up an Art Heist Movie
There must be a lesson in Vasilis Katsoupis’s film Inside about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care.
Ten Painful Stories of the Dutch Colonial Slave Trade
The Rijksmuseum’s traveling show strives to remind us that we are all, in some way, a part of this chapter of human history, whose legacy continues today.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Textured Histories at Shiprock Santa Fe
The Santa Fe gallery features Indigenous textiles and jewelry from the early 19th century to today.
Renaissance Portrait of “Ugly Duchess” Likely Depicts a Man
A curator at London’s National Gallery believes the subject of painter Quinten Massys’s painting “is most likely a he.”
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Hokusai’s “Great Wave” Makes a Splash at Auction
An edition of the iconic woodblock print broke records when it sold for $2.8M this week.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
These quilts are incredible. If you are nearer Philadelphia than LA visit the Michener Museum in Doylestown. Their current exhibit of African-American quilts is a small wonder. It is full of the fine work of strong and beautiful women. It is a must see here in Pennsylvnia.
Oh, protest quilts are nothing new! My favorite is still Fannie B.Shaw’s quilt titled : “Prosperity is Just Around the Corner”, a 1932 Applique showing various Americans, from Businessmen and Doctors, to farmers, teachers, and nurses looking around the corner for President Herbert Hoover’s promised end to the Great Depression! Charming and whimsical, it is a treasure to behold. Now, I believe in the holdings of the Dallas Museum of art, it is pictured on the cover of Woodward & Greenstein’s book: Twentieth Century Quilts 1900-1950.
Links to similarly-themed quilts:
Comments are closed.