Photo Essays

Largest Private Collection of African American Quilts Donated to a Berkeley Museum

The estate of art scholar and collector Eli Leon donated nearly 3,000 quilts to the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Rosie Lee Tompkins: Untitled, 1996; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1996. All images of works from the collection of Eli Leon, photographed by Sharon Risedorph, and courtesy of BAMPFA (unless otherwise noted).

The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) will be sleeping well tonight after receiving a donation of nearly 3,000 quilts, a bequest of the collection of art scholar and renowned collector Eli Leon. Leon passed away in March of 2018, having assembled what is thought to be the largest private collection of works by African American quiltmakers. Notable artists represented in the Leon Collection include Arbie Williams, Laverne Brackens, Gladys Henry, Sherry Byrd, and Angie Tobias, among many others — perhaps most importantly those of Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006), a Bay Area quiltmaker who initiated Leon’s interest in the medium.

Emma Hall: Double Wedding Ring, ca. 1940.
Kattie Pennington: Bow Tie Medallion, ca. 1985; quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1990.

Based in Oakland, Eli Leon was a practicing psychotherapist when he happened to meet Tompkins — then an unknown artist — at a flea market in 1985. This touched off Leon’s passionate interest in heritage textile traditions of African American artists, leading him to spend the next 30 years earnestly learning and amassing a wealth of fiber art, including some 500 works by Tompkins herself. Leon acted not only as a patron to Tompkins’s work, but a champion, and worked closely with BAMPFA to mount Tompkins’s first solo exhibition in 1997. The donated collection with facilitate a major retrospective of Tompkins at BAMPFA in February of 2020, and serve as the basis of an exhibition showcasing a broader selection of artists at BAMPFA in 2022.

Minnie Lee Metcalf: Grandmother’s Rose Garden, 1989.
Rosie Lee Tompkins: Untitled, 1985; quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1985.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance and power of this gift,” BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder told the New York Times. “The scale of it and the depth of it is mind blowing.” The accession of the Eli Leon Collection will increase the size of BAMPFA’s holdings by more than 15 percent and offer a new arena in which art history can be viewed as inclusive to artists whose identities and media have been historically marginalized in fine art.

Effie Jackson: Double Strip, early 1940s; quilted by Willia Ette Graham and Johnnie Wade, 1988.
Gussie Wells: Palindromic Strip, 1984; quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1984.

It is dubious, to say the least, that some of the biggest names in contemporary art history — like the primarily straight, white, male fraternity of the abstract expressionist movement — made their fame by dealing in the kind of emotive, gestural, and abstracted balances of color and texture that had been the hallmark of quilting for centuries. That this work was done in domestic capacity, often by women, and through a process of collectivized labor all served to obscure the vision, problem-solving, story-telling, and masterful execution of quilts as an art form. No doubt, the Eli Leon Collection will provide BAMPFA with a sterling opportunity to tell these stories and appreciate the contribution made by their makers — known and unknown — to art history. As Charles Desmaris wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle: “[the gift] adds to the seemingly inexorable broadening of the horizons of art history, to include the culture and the stories of communities of color.”

Arbie Williams: Medallion, 1987; quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1987. Photo: Geoffry Johnson.
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