Rennie Zulu, “Twelve Squares of Traditional Culture in South Africa” (1999) and Crossroad Quilters, “Sacred Animals II Quilt” (2000) (all images courtesy Collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art)

The Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson has acquired 131 pieces reflecting the long tradition of quilt-making among Black women in Southern communities. The collection, a gift from the Kohler Foundation, was assembled by Roland Freeman, a prominent photographer and documentarian of 20th-century Black culture who became increasingly interested in quilt-making throughout his career. The gift includes quilts made in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and other Southern states as well as Liberia and South Africa.

Varnette Honeywood, “African American Woman in Pink” (1992)

Freeman worked as a photographer for Life Magazine and Magnum Photos and traversed the country capturing pictures of Black communities. In the early 1970s, Freeman became the director of the Mississippi Folklife Project, a subsidiary of the Smithsonian, and took an interest in the state’s long history of quilt-making. The photographer established a personal collection of quilts and published two books about the tradition: Something to Keep You Warm: The Roland Freeman Collection of Black American Quilts from the Mississippi Heartland (1981), published by The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers and Their Stories (1996), published by Rutledge Hill Press.

Many of the Mississippi Museum of Art’s new works reflect the history of the artistic practice in its home state. “Star Quilt” (1977), an explosively colorful arrangement of intricately arranged diamond shapes, was created by Anne Dennis, a native of Woodville, Mississippi who — along with her sister and mother — piqued Freeman’s early interest in quilting. Another newly acquired work titled “Honeycomb Quilt” (1976) was sewn by the mother and daughter duo.

Other pieces pay homage to the practice. One quilt titled “African American Woman in Pink” (1992) forgoes the traditional patchwork patterns of many quilts and appears more similar to a collage. It was sewn by Varnette Honeywood, a painter and illustrator who depicted scenes of Black life for television, books, and on her own canvases, ultimately achieving national acclaim as an artist.

Annie Dennis, “Star Quilt” (1977)

Several items in the Kohler Foundation gift also point to the collaborative nature of Mississippi’s quilting tradition. A more recent figurative work was created by Crossroad Quilters, a group of predominantly Black women artists who design and sew their quilts as a group.

In A Communion of the Spirits, Freeman wrote about the personal significance and resonance that quilts had for him, describing them as “magical.”

“They could heal and they could curse; they could capture history and affect the future; they could transform pain to celebration,” the photographer wrote.

The museum is planning on exhibiting the quilts in late 2024 or early 2025.

Annie Dennis and Phoeba Johnson, “Honeycomb Quilt” (1976)
Betty Tolbert, “Improvisational Quilt” (1973), quilted fabric
Cleola McFarland, “Strip Quilt” (1974), quilted fabric
Matilee Knight, “United Quilt,” 1988, quilted fabric

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.